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

Discussion in 'Creative Writing' started by Malcolm Tent, Mar 19, 2022.

  1. Threadmarks: chapter 333
    Malcolm Tent

    Malcolm Tent Experienced.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Malcolm Tent Experienced.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Malcolm Tent Experienced.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    BJJPanda I trust you know where the happy button is?

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

    Malcolm Tent Experienced.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Malcolm Tent Experienced.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Malcolm Tent Experienced.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Malcolm Tent Experienced.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Malcolm Tent Experienced.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Malcolm Tent Experienced.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Malcolm Tent Experienced.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Malcolm Tent Experienced.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Malcolm Tent Experienced.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Malcolm Tent Experienced.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Malcolm Tent Experienced.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Malcolm Tent Experienced.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Of course, given his title, it was hard to say how much of that was a real impression and how much he'd purposefully cultivated the feeling to put people off their game. As 'the Liar' I expected Perception was his bread and butter, and aside from stealth, I supposed Perception would be excellent for giving false impressions like that. Either way, he was here now. He held up a familiar folded piece of paper, sans money. "I heard you were looking for some information." Well, that was a good start. Probably.
    Quenster06, BJJPanda, Thorq and 6 others like this.
  17. Threadmarks: chapter 348
    Malcolm Tent

    Malcolm Tent Experienced.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    I closed my eyes and sighed. "Ah. That would be why he used glitter. All that excess light shifting around makes Stealth MUCH harder. Ok. " I triggered one of my stored up Stealth charges, synergizing it with my own Stealth skill, and Callie added hers in, and we were barely able to make it to the parking lot without being noticed. Yeah. Definitely understood the impulse to turn him into a fish.
  18. Threadmarks: chapter 349
    Malcolm Tent

    Malcolm Tent Experienced.

    Oct 16, 2020
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    The next day we had...nothing to do. Not absolutely nothing, granted, we had training pretty much daily, but there were no big important tasks other than getting ready for the following day's match. We slept in late, got up and had a big breakfast, and then had a big meeting with the others to catch them up on what they might have missed, as well as making sure they all knew Rime (Cark hadn't met her yet).

    Once that was done I granted her all five of her wishes, confirming that while I could do four points of stats for a G-ranker, I could only do two for an F-ranker, and it would be impressive if I could manage even a single one for an E-ranker. Still, ten points of stats was nothing to sneeze at, especially daily with no big requirements.

    In repayment for her wishes she put up elixirs as requested. Each wish of two points was paid off with a G-ranked elixir worth five, and she was easily able to supply the Focus elixirs Benny needed for the day, bringing his focus up from one hundred thirty three to one hundred fifty eight, his total coming up to four hundred and twenty eight points. At this rate it might be possible to finish getting him and Jessie up to F-rank before it was time to leave.

    "I have to say." I told Callie as we sat on the couch with the others, strategizing for possible enemy fights based on the opponents we were sure had passed the third round already. "I kind of wish the elixir limit wasn't a thing. Like, I understand it, but this is WAY more convenient that bartering individual points. It would have made ranking up a snap." I looked at Zeke. "Any chance its possible to integrate elixir points perfectly with wishes?"

    He sawed a hand back and forth. "Anything is possible, but it's not cost effective. It's an Impact thing, so it only really work on people lower ranked than you are, which kind of limits your options. That's a much bigger change than you might think, so even in those circumstances the cost is prohibitive. The only ones who really bother are incredibly rich cultivators who can pay MUCH stronger wish granters to get their kids back on track."

    Rime nodded at that. "I could see how that would be a rare and valuable commodity. It can be pretty enticing to be able to constantly get stronger like that. There are plenty of people who don't believe they can ever rank up and just decide to ignore their elixir limit entirely and artificially pump themselves up to their next rank limit."

    I froze. That...I went back over what I knew about elixirs in my head. That would actually work. The elixir limit wasn't an inherent thing, it was the formula for what part of your core self could be artificially inflated before your soul would be too weak for a rank up. Which meant it WOULD be possible for people to pump themselves up to the edge of a rank. "Ok, I hadn't realized you could do that but that makes sense. Why don't all the E-rankers do it then? Shouldn't they ALL be at the peak of E?"

    Rime shook her head. "They can't. We don't have nearly enough E-ranked Alchemists or materials to supply all of them. Hell, we have almost none. Any time E-ranked elixirs show up they get snatched up almost immediately, and usually not by the same person."

    "True, it's much more common elsewhere." Chimed in Zeke. "With D-rank being a watershed, E-rank is as high as a lot of people manage to get, so you see a lot of people who completely abandon the hope of advancement to artificially pump themselves up to the peak of E. Happens all the time on real D-rank planets where materials like that are much easier to get."

    Rime sighed. "Even F-rank pills and elixirs can be hard to find here. I hit my cap, but I'm in the minority. Frostbite had to put in quite a bit of effort to boost me up so much. Luckily, G-rank is low enough that there are plenty to go around. We had a stockpile for some of our lower level members, and I didn't even clean the whole thing out."

    Well that was good for us. Honestly even once the twenty five wishes were past I would probably work with her for a while if possible, since at that speed Jessie would still have seventy five points left on her cap. I also cursed myself for never trying to give more points when they were lower ranked, since I'd had no idea it worked like that. I probably could have gotten them to G-rank much faster. Assuming they could pay for it of course. I hoped that Callie had mentioned her whole part time job thing, since they would need cash to pay off the points blitz especially in the last month. At the very least once I broke through to F-rank getting Jessie ready in time would be much easier.

    Focusing back on the matter at hand, I had to point out the obvious. "As nice as getting everyone to G-rank on time is, it's not exactly going to matter if we can't win this. We really need to know who we're fighting."

    Benny snorted. "Anyone else amused at the irony of us doing our level best to get the leak busted when we could really use his services?" He looked at Rime. "Any chance he's still active and they're like...gathering evidence or something?" He said hopefully.

    She just smirked. "We're the Unity. We don't need to do stings on flunkies." Her smirk dropped off into an annoyed scowl. "He was picked up right after I called in and is currently having...words, with some of our interrogation specialists. Probably won't lead anywhere sadly. Either he's a greedy opportunist or whoever was pulling his strings did it carefully, but either way he's apparently not going to give up anything of value. Not the best outcome I admit."

    That was unfortunate, but it could have gone worse. Still. "Does that mean there's not a high chance of him going down for this?"

    "Oh that's already happening." She said casually. "He's screwed, it's just that he's the ONLY one who's screwed. The threat is a lot weaker if she just wrecks the one guy. Since we couldn't get his bosses, anyone else who wants to leak info through a cats paw will be emboldened to try it for themselves. Though Frostbite is having people put in place to keep an eye on all the bigger names who have access to things like fight info, so at the very least they won't be quite so overt about it next time."

    I slumped at that. "Does that benefit us at all though? Getting our hands on some random minion isn't likely to actually scare off the people behind him."

    She shook her head. "Nope, but you're not thinking of this the right way. Whoever was backing him won't dare act a second time. While some of the middle management might risk it, whoever he got that information from has to be careful now that everyone is being watched. One data point means nothing, plenty of people could have given him that little tidbit, but the more times it happens the more vulnerable they are. They won't dare try it again while being watched. Which means whichever faction bought that information lost their main connection in management."

    Callie cut in, bringing us back to the point. "Anyway, we need some kind of plan on what we'll do, and since we don't know what we're actually facing more than one plan would be best. Something general, maybe some formations we can use or something." She looked at Abel, who was leaning back on the couch nearby with his eyes closed, though the angle of his head and his breathing showed us he wasn't sleeping, just relaxing as we talked. "Any ideas there, Apollyon?"

    His eyes opened, focusing on me. "Maybe." He said with deliberation. "I'm not sure exactly. Honestly I think we have enough figured out in terms of roles that we don't need too much more work there. Our best bet is to continue the training we were working on before, forcing you all to react to my attacks and try to survive them. That's training that will give you instincts you can't get from studying a teams win record."

    I grimaced. I'd been afraid he'd say something like that. I'd hated that training. Callie didn't seem thrilled either, but she nodded. "That might be best. Realistically, not knowing the opponent isn't too much of an imposition as long as we're in top form, and your...special training is nothing if not effective." She shot Benny and Jessie a jealous look. I completely sympathized. Those lucky bastards.

    Abel popped to his feet, moving almost too quickly to track. "Well then, guess we have a plan." He grinned at us wickedly. "You two might want to get warmed up. Wouldn't want you to move too slow and get hurt." I was pretty positive given the massive strength difference Abel wouldn't accidentally kill us, but he might PURPOSEFULLY maim us, given Jessie's presence here as insurance.

    Speaking of which, I looked over at her. "Hey Agria, can you do me a favor and stick around for this? Even if he doesn't break our knees or something we don't want to fight exhausted tomorrow. If you patch us up we can train hard and still be in good condition."

    She shrugged. "Sure. I was planning to go visit Randall and the wolves, but I can do it later." With Randall coming up here we realized the house wasn't going to cut it for keeping the animals, so we'd cleared out a shed behind the house that Zeke hadn't bothered telling us about. The wolves had claimed it as a den pretty much, and Randall mostly just slept in the back and let them do their thing unless they woke him up.

    With a sigh, we headed for the training room to prepare for the fight. Realistically, I knew this was a smart move. Abel was a monster in battle, and learning to react to him even in training took our ability to avoid attacks to a whole new level, but I was getting cold shakes remembering the last time we did this. The feeling of his fist whistling by me so fast I could barely track it was something I would never get used to.

    When we got down there, I saw that Rime had come along with us, deciding to sit off to one side and watch, and to my surprise Mel walked over to sit with her. The two of them had started chatting and apparently hit it off. I found the dichotomy amusing, since they literally couldn't be more different. The red haired fire user and the blue haired ice user were a study in contrasts, but it couldn't be a bad thing for Rime to get better acquainted with everyone.

    As we took up position and started warming up, Abel strolled into the ring we were going to be using and stripped off his coat. He left the mask on, which we were thankful for, since Mel had told us that Abel was only ever REALLY serious in battle when he took off his mask. But still, knowing he was going harder this time was terrifying.

    I triggered the overlay for both of us, making sure we'd have the best chance to avoid the attacks and to learn from this, and focused on the bond between Callie and I. Once he saw that we were ready, Abel gave us that same bloodthirsty smile that had been seared into my brain last time. "Fight." And then all I could see was fists. This was going to be a long day.
  19. Threadmarks: chapter 350
    Malcolm Tent

    Malcolm Tent Experienced.

    Oct 16, 2020
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    It was time. Round four. Rime got her wishes in before we left and Benny started on taking his elixirs (all for Might this time and set to bring him up to one hundred and sixty four Might) and we all made our way to the arena while he did, with Rime coming along just in case, since she was our bodyguard. Surprisingly, the four made another appearance and followed behind us too, which I supposed made sense, since Alexander was bound to want to keep Callie safe.

    I could feel from the Impact difference between them and Rime (I wasn't as good as gauging the differences in F-rankers, but I could get a general feel for it) that they weren't on her level, but they would be solid backup, and with Rime intervening they would have an excuse to jump in and protect us from any F-ranked threats without starting a war, which was the more important part.

    Everyone got set up in the stands and the four of us headed down to the prep room under the stadium before to wait to be deployed. When we got down there, we found the guy waiting to send us in and finally had a chance to ask him about our opponents. He smirked at us when he heard the question. "Well at least some of you little bastards are in the dark. last round only one of my teams asked who they were facing. I think it's more exciting this way though, don't you? No chances to prepare for your opponent. The first rounds were a bit to predictable, so they wanted to shake things up."

    He looked at us suspiciously for a bit, as if it had only just occurred to him that we hadn't asked him last time, but eventually rolled his eyes. "Oh well. Too late for any last minute planning anyway. Fine. Let me see." He walked over to a desk and pulled out a clipboard, flipping through it. "Ah. You're up against the Seven Seas Armada. C-rank faction. Pretty good results so far."

    There was no further elaboration, which was annoying, but at least we had some kind of idea now. Probably some kind of water based force? He walked back over and sat down in an old wooden chair, ignoring us and closing his eyes as he waited for it to be time to dispatch us to the sand pit. After a few minutes of looking around the cramped, moist stone space, his eyes snapped open and he looked over at us. "Alright. Go on out. Good luck."

    We nodded to him and the four of us walked out into the arena. The sun was beating down but as usual it was silent despite the cheering crowd because of the sound barrier around the combat area. When we came out and saw the other team...we all stopped.

    Pirates. We were fighting fucking pirates. Long leather coats, tricorn hats, pistols, swords, the works. I wasn't sure what was up with the pistols since aside from that Master Candidate I heard not many people used them, but the rest of their gear gave the impression of brutal efficiency and LOTS of practice. My heard started pounding in excitement as I grinned at them. I got the distinct impression this would be a fun fight.

    "Well now!" Said the leader cockily. "If it isn't our opponents. You certainly don't look like much, but then again, I suppose looks aren't everything."

    I snickered at the comment. "It's ok, I'm sure plenty of people will like you for your personality." Callie rolled her eyes and Abel chuckled while Mel just shook her head. The enemy...er, captain smiled wolfishly, seemingly unbothered by the comment.

    He opened his mouth to speak, but before he could I got a...feeling. Whether it was my fate sense, my diviner instincts, or just luck, I got a strong impression I needed to MOVE, so I did. The sand rippled like lapping waves and one of the pirates (the shortest, who had his whole face wrapped in bandages under his hat( broke apart into shards of glass as an exact copy of him emerged from the ground, wickedly sharp blade aimed right at my fucking eye.

    Callie reached out and grabbed my coat, casually pulling me the rest of the way clear, she'd already been moving when I had, since out bond made it easy enough for her to see something like that coming if I did. The form of the pirate dropped back toward the sand, but as he fell Abel's fist lashed out like a speeding car, about to smash into him.

    The captain crossed the distance within a blink, his sword coming free at the same time as his pistol and chopping down roughly at Abel's hand while his gun came up at Mel and fired. Rather than a musket ball or something, which I'd have expected to come out of the barrel, a cannonball of green smoke erupted from the gun, and Mel's eyes widened as she called a wall of flamed to stop it from reaching her.

    Abel, who was about to follow up, jerked his head toward her and bellowed "NO!" Before vanishing in a swirling line of shifting space as he tackled his girlfriend out of the way before the gas made contact with her flame defense, barely getting them clear of the huge gas explosion. The captain had already spun on us to attack, but I wasn't giving him a shot, I got a dangerous feeling from him. I unleashed a blast of flame of my own I had stored up from Cark, releasing it through my cane which I'd already coated in poison fire.

    The scruffy blonde man snarled but stepped back into the watery sand, falling beneath the 'waves' and vanishing to reappear next to the others alongside the bandaged one. The closest to them, a tall red haired woman with piercing green eyes, stepped over to put a hand on them and...fuck, healed them. We hadn't fought a team with a healer yet, but as I watched the soothing water wash away their wounds I realized this would be even tougher than expected.

    Abel stormed back over, slightly singed and looking as genuinely annoyed as I had seen him in one of these fights. Stripping off his jacket he shoved it into my hands. "Stay here." He said with a snarl and started stalking toward the other team.

    I looked at Mel uncertainly and she just snorted and shook her head. "Stay on alert. We'll jump in if we're needed, but I doubt we will be. That other team isn't bad, but they aren't on the same level as some of the ones we've fought so far. Let him work it out."

    Shrugging I sat and watched, waiting for my mentor to do his thing. I was kind of curious to see how this would go for the pirates. I hadn't met anyone who could really push Abel. The closest was the Master Candidate with the Mop Skill, but even he'd mostly given the man a light workout. As he stalked forward, the captain, flicked a hand, and the bandage guy and captain both vanished into a ripple of waves on the sand. At the same time, the redheaded woman stepped back and the last man, and absolutely massive guy with bulging biceps showing through a sleeveless leather vest, hurled himself forward.

    He shot forward like a cannonball, curling his legs and arms as he turned to steel midair. Abel hauled back and smashed his fist headlong into the flying man, and I saw a slight ripple in the air of a fist image between them just long enough to crush the big man into the sand before Abel's elbow caught a previously unseen slipstream of warped space and his body CONTORTED like a fucking spinning top, his elbow smashing into the face of the now emerging bandage guy.

    As that happened the captain emerged from the sand cutlass shopping up at Abel's throat. My mentor's spare hand waved in the air, creating another spatial slipstream and guiding the sword harmlessly by him, but before he could press the attack the pistol came up and a roaring wolf head made of blue flames erupted from the barrel.

    Abel shifted his whole body back and to the side, his physical form jerking in several rapid directional changes I don't think I'd be capable of with years of practice, before the wolf head caught up. When it did, it smashed into him headlong, only to hit sand as his form blurred, revealing that to have been a fucking AFTERIMAGE as he appeared behind the now open captain.

    The blonde man snarled and yanked his hand from the pocked it slipped into after holstering his gun, hurling out a cloud of black dust that Abel prevented from immobilizing him by guiding it away from his face with spatial lubrication. The redhead had been sneaking over to heal bandage guy as the steel guy dug himself out, and they swarmed him, all of them together converging to attack from all sides.

    I moved to go help but Mel stuck out a hand and put it on my shoulder, shaking her head. I supposed it was fine, he'd already showed off everything he could do, he'd just done it VERY casually. He wasn't giving away any new abilities here, just proving he was way fucking stronger than most of the people here. If anything this would hide some of our own possible trump cards.

    I have to give them credit. The four of them together were scary. Not the same level of cohesion that Callie and I or Abel and Mel had, but a different kind of teamwork. Where our cooperation was a perfect melding of our styles, theirs was almost the opposite. They were so perfectly out of sync that it made properly reacting to them at the same time nearly impossible. It was so discordant it was almost beautiful, and if it had been me I'd have been screwed.

    The captain drew and fired, a massive cloud of red smoke in the shape of a bear trap snapping towards Abel while the big guy hurled himself at my mentor's legs and the redhead fired some kind of blowdart at him, covering the bandage guy who leapt toward his back. They knew exactly what the others would do, and instead of fitting their attacks together, they made them so wildly different that there was no way to counter both.

    Except if you were Abel. With barely a thought, he dropped to a knee, swinging a hand up behind him to create a slide of spatial energy over his back. The metal guy hit the slipstream and changed direction arcing up over Abel's back to take his place. The red energy trap closed around the metallic pirate and he screamed in agony, the metal fading from his skin. Bandage guy landed on him as the red trap was closing, and the smaller pirate stiffened but made no sound as blood welled from the injury.

    Abel slid forward through space, leaving them to drop onto the sand, the dart from the healer having hit the big guy head on as my teacher engaged the captain alone. A series of short, sharp punches launched from outside the captain's range that hit despite being too far away disabled the pirate leader before Abel knocked him out with a brutal smashing blow to his chin.

    Turning to the redhead slowly, Abel glared at her emotionlessly, and the pirate girl dropped to her knees, hands behind her head to show the people outside the dome she surrendered. Abel snorted and turned to walk away in disgust, and she breathed a sigh of relief before scrambling over to treat her friends. Fingers crossed she had an antidote to whatever was in that dart, because metal guy was turning purple. As I watched Abel walk back toward us though, I swallowed audibly. Note to self, never mess with Apollyon. After this display, I doubted I was the only person thinking that either.
  20. Threadmarks: chapter 351
    Malcolm Tent

    Malcolm Tent Experienced.

    Oct 16, 2020
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    "Well." I said in shock. "That was...terrifying." I looked over at Callie. "Why do we even fight? Like, we could just have Apollyon carry the team through the whole first half of the tournament. Not like it would be hard for him." My tone was joking and light, but honestly I kind of wished she would agree. As much fun as some of these fights were for me, I could always get my fill of that in the single elimination rounds.

    Abel just snorted. "No." We both looked at him and our mentor chuckled. "You're thinking too short term. We have four more rounds of practice to get you ready for the single elimination fights. If you waste them all using me as a crutch you're going to get crushed in the early rounds of the one on one fights and that removes a bunch of our chances to get first place in the tournament."

    He was right, and honestly I didn't feel like sitting around the whole fight for the next few rounds anyway. I just shrugged. "I was mostly kidding. Anyway, maybe we should go and check on the pirates. We never got an introduction, and they were actually about as impressive as the mop team."

    I expected him to snap or get pissed, but Abel just nodded. "True." At our surprised looks he just shook his head. "You assumed I'd be too pissed to talk to them? I was annoyed when they almost hurt my partner, but I already got my revenge, so now we're even. They actually did better than I expected, so I'm not against introducing ourselves."

    The match was over, but it would be a while until the exhibition matches anyway, and even if it wouldn't...that wasn't our problem, we would leave when we were done. As we approached, the redhead saw us coming from where she was healing the metal guy (who was no longer metal) and reached for her weapon unconsciously. The captain, who was already healed and conscious again, albeit rubbing his chin gingerly.

    "Ok." Said the captain sheepishly. "I probably deserved that, but dear gods man, you took that a bit personally didn't you?" Abel just raised an eyebrow at the man, who put up both hands. "Right, right, my apologies. That gas isn't normally quite so flammable, or rather, it combusts at absurdly high temperatures. G-ranker fire abilities aren't usually enough to set it off like that." He reached out a hand to bandage guy, who had already been healed, and let the smaller man pull him to his feet.

    Mel rolled her eyes. "It's fine. No one got seriously hurt." Her tone was annoyed, though the trace of a smile on her face told me she wasn't exactly unhappy with Abel's extreme reaction to her injuries. I stepped over, putting a hand on each of them and releasing a heal burst. They weren't too damaged, but it didn't make sense to leave the two of them hurt for no reason when I could help, and Mel in particular seemed like she might be more banged up then she was letting on based on the way she was carrying herself.

    The man nodded. "Glad to hear it. Fighting dirty is what we do, but we aren't lunatics. No one wants bodies dropping in a tournament." He held out a hand to Abel, who was the closest. "Teague Cromwell. The one in the bandages is Rum, the jumbo lad turning a lovely shade of plum from his teammates own poison is Ruffle, and the fetching lass with the blood colored hair keeping our sorry arses alive is Mallory. I know you lot are the Starchaser Pavilion, but I'm afraid I haven't heard any more than that." He said the last bit leadingly, obviously curious about who we were.

    Callie smiled at that. "I'm Nightstrike, team leader. The terrifying thug in the silver mask who totaled your whole team single handedly is Apollyon, our resident hothead is Starbreaker, and the big lovable goon looming over me is my partner Solomon. Not a surprise you haven't heard of us. We're a local team, and a recent one at that. We were impressed how you handled yourselves though, and we were hoping you might want to grab something to eat and share information, given you're already out of the tournament and have nothing to hide anymore."

    Teague burst out laughing. "Well, you're certainly an optimistic bunch, I'll grant you that. Not wrong though, sure, we would be happy to tag along. We don't really have anything on after this anyway. We were planning a little celebration dinner later tonight with just the team, but I suppose we can move it up to a lunch."

    That struck me as a bit odd. "What do you guys have celebrate? You lost?" Everyone looked at me, and it took me a second to replay that in my head and realize how dickish it sounded. "Um. Sorry, did I say that out loud? I meant you...experienced an important growth opportunity?"

    The grin on the scruffy blonde man's face told me he didn't have any hard feelings. "Right you are, mate. Lose we did. But it was a good fight. Maybe not the most impressive showing we've put on, but we hardly embarrassed ourselves did we? No reason to sulk about not making it. Only one of the ten thousand participants will with the grand prize, so our odds weren't exactly great. No shame in doing your best."

    "Besides." Said Mallory as she approached with a now healed,albeit still limping, Ruffle (whose name made literally no sense to me). "We weren't the favorites in this by any means. My money is on those girls from Final Frost Heaven personally. Those ice queens are scary. Anyway, someone said something about food? Healing really takes it out of me."

    That was interesting. I hadn't really contextualized Jessie's eating habits with her energy expenditure for healing and taming, but that made a lot of sense. Callie seemed interested in the comment as well, but as the leader her focus was on the bigger picture and she was less prone to drifting off on tangents (admittedly most people were less prone to that, I was a fairly flighty person) and refocused on the matter at hand. "We should get out of the pit." Said my girlfriend wryly. "I imagine they want to get another team in here, or at least clean this place up."

    It should be noted that the sand pit was definitely a bit of a mess. Teague grimaced and nodded, waving his teammates over as we all filed out of the pit through the exit gate on our side. I wasn't sure if they were supposed to do that, but again, not really our problem. As we walked, Abel sidled up next to Teague. "So, I'm interested in your combat style, it felt sort of...haphazard, but in an unpredictable way."

    His comment got a laugh from the pirate captain. "Because it's supposed to. Scallywag is a combat style designed to take advantage of a variety of environmental and situational factors to create openings in the enemy's form. The handful of powder, that variety of bullets, those make things easier, but natural dust or sand or improvised local weapons work just as well. Our Admiral created the style himself over centuries of traveling the cluster and getting in fights in all sorts of different locations."

    Abel nodded thoughtfully. "Sacrifice power for versatility. It isn't a bad idea. The pit wasn't exactly your ideal fighting location then. Would have been better for the lot of you if we fought in the wild."

    "Somewhat." Said Teague with a shrug. "But ANY location means even ones where there isn't much around. Hence the prepared armaments and tricks. I'm more impressed with your style. I'd heard there were Master Candidates in this thing, but I hadn't done much research into them. I didn't know one of you was local, being able to get to that level of Skill on a pseudo D-rank planet is pretty monstrous."

    There wasn't much to say to that. It WAS monstrous, so Abel just gave a shrug of his own and changed the subject. "So, what's the deal with the bullets. Those enchanted?" I'd been wondering about that myself. It was almost similar to how I used my stored attacks, albeit less versatile and more cumbersome. I wouldn't be switching to a flintlock, no matter how badass it looked.

    Teague drew said flintlock in a smooth motion, laying it across a forearm and aiming it at the wall as he closed one eye to sight down the barrel. "Yup. We have a dedicated Bulletteer in the Armada. His whole ability is a synergy between Enchanting and Ammo Creation, and he even experiments with Inventing and Alchemy for some of his formulas. It's amazing what you can accomplish when you dedicate yourself to a craft. Especially once you reach the Master ranks."

    It certainly sounded like it. I couldn't wait to see what kind of things Benny would be making at C or even D-rank. Teague filled us in on some of the history of the Seven Seas Armada, which had one of the largest standing navies in the system and employed most of the highest ranking engineers who worked on ships at all. I'd have loved to be able to afford a ship that could take us off world, but I knew there was zero chance the money I had on hand was even approaching enough so I filed that information away for later use.

    Mallory had a suggestion for a local steak house, and we decided to eat there at her suggestion, and as we emerged from the underbelly of the arena we met up with Rime and the others and introduced them. Benny gave me a subtle nod of approval, apparently making friends with pirates was a win in his book, and we all headed out for lunch.

    As we headed out to the car, I felt a buzz on my finger and told everyone I'd catch up. I opened the call from my cousin, seeing her looking worried. "Shane, you're ok. Thank the gods." Her relief was not encouraging. "You need to be careful. There were attacks on six of the major faction teams within the last hour. Someone is making moves they really shouldn't be. I don't see what anyone gets from moving this early, but there's been huge bounties offered on several promising teams including yours and mine and they all went out around the same time."

    My eyes snapped to my friends, who were heading for the car. Melinda and Alexander weren't there, nor was Zeke, they figured having high rankers around would ruin the vibe for lunch. The four and Rime were still with us though, so when the vortex of whirling grey mist slammed down on the group of them they weren't completely helpless. I barely had time to see the dome of fractal ice form over them all before they were swallowed by the mist.

    Without a second of hesitation I bolted right at the mist, triggering Seek Hidden on Callie and harmonizing it with our bond to enhance the effect. I could see a glowing form a few dozen feet away and focused on that, trusting her to recognize I was coming and tell Rime so she could let me through the dome.

    As I drew closer I detected movement behind me and without even pausing I used Leaf on the Wind and Cloud Step to send myself flashing up diagonally in a way that almost no one would be able to account for in an attack. A wave of acidic purple sludge hit the ice, hissing even as it came down. I thought for a second it had melted, but I saw Rime looking my way and realized she was opening the dome for me. I Cloud Stepped again and landed inside as she closed it up. Sadly though, ice wasn't exactly opaque, which meant we could still see the dark forms emerging from the mist. We were surrounded.
  21. Threadmarks: chapter 352
    Malcolm Tent

    Malcolm Tent Experienced.

    Oct 16, 2020
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    There were a lot of people here. More than I'd been expecting, and more than a few of them were F-rank. I don't think they had taken the four into account, probably because their addition to the party had been last minute, so there was only five F-rankers total. I was pretty sure those were prepared specifically for Rime, based on the way the efficiently spread out to surround and begin to take down the dome.

    G-rankers were much more numerous. Easily twenty of them. This lineup would have been a death sentence for us if we hadn't taken the precautions we had, but even so it was damn dangerous. I thought back to what Natalie had said. This was a concerted attack, and would have taken massive resources. What was the point of this?

    Callie grabbed me in a hug when I landed. "Oh thank the gods. I was about to come out and get you."

    "I'm fine." I said with a smile. "Is everyone in here ok?" I looked around to check on everyone, Benny and Jessie were still here, presumably because while in existential danger, they hadn't been placed in direct life threatening trouble yet and as such hadn't triggered their emergency escape wishes. Those had really been a good value so far, even if they hadn't seen use yet.

    Abel, who was looking around in annoyance, spoke up. "We're fine, though I can't help but notice that all our E-rankers are gone." That was Zeke, most likely. I wasn't sure why though. I knew he couldn't interfere, but the only reason to actively draw off our protection would be if he thought that letting these people attack us would be useful for some reason. I doubted it was training, which implied that they might have some sort of information we could use.

    Or he just wanted me to be ready for assassins. Who fucking knew? I looked to Callie, seeing what the plan was. She looked surprisingly furious, but I could feel her reign in her temper through the bond, forcing herself to calm down as she closed her eyes and took a deep breath. "We don't need them." She said calmly, her voice level and her eyes still shut. "We'll be fine." She raised her voice. "Don't suppose any of you shadowy asshats feels like talking?"

    To our surprise, a figure slipped from the fog, a short man in a dapper suit and top hat, complete with mantle, cane and monocle. His mustache looked a little thin, like he wasn't quite old enough to grow a proper one, which sort of ruined the effect, but he gave us a perfunctory smile. "I suppose I might be open to a dialogue. I have to admit, we were led to believe your force would be less...formidable."

    Which meant whoever had given them our information had been working on our of date information, though they had also been watching us, clearly, otherwise they wouldn't have waited until the E-rankers left. Had they not been able to tell the four were F-ranked until they engaged us? Maybe their scout couldn't differentiate Impact from a distance and they were working from photos, or maybe Silent Dagger had ways of keeping that information hidden at range.

    Callie nodded. "Well, what's your offer? Going to say you'll let half of us go if we stay out of the way? What's your name by the way? If you're going to threaten us we should at least know who we're talking to."

    The man smiled. "Miles. My name is Miles Blakely. And I've been hired to...dissuade you, from taking part in the remainder of the tournament. Violence isn't an inevitability, simply one of our options. Though I caution you we are not unaccustomed to such methods."

    I thought back to what Natalie had said. She'd said the other teams were attacked, not killed. Of course, I somehow doubted that these people were as reasonable as they portrayed themselves. If we hadn't been such a tough nut to crack I was pretty sure they'd have just crushed us.

    Still, I understood what Callie's next move would be. We'd already talked this over, and I told her I'd understand if things got too dicey and we needed to back out of the tournament. Which why I was shocked when my usually rational and cool headed girlfriend fucking SPAT at the guy. "Fuck you!" I...blinked at her in shock. What was she doing?

    Miles seemed thrown as well. "You realize you're throwing away any chances for a peaceful resolution." If he was trying to talk her down, he fucking sucked at it. Nobody liked being patronized, and his tone was pretty condescending, I got the confusion though.

    Callie just sneered at him. "You assholes just attacked my boyfriend right in front of me. It wasn't a tournament match, you sucker punched him. If he wasn't as good as he was he'd never have made it in here, and would probably be out there as a hostage, or worse, a corpse. So no, I won't reconsider or rephrase. Fuck. You. If you'd made the offer before attacking I might have accepted, gods know I've considered pulling out of this mess, but if you think I'm going to let some bullying assholes tell me how to live my life your intelligence is as pathetic and minimal as your wispy little mustache."

    I burst out laughing, and everyone turned to look at me, but I just shrugged, ignoring them all to turn and grin at Callie. "I'm so proud of you right now I can't even stand it. You really took that whole 'do stupid shit because you feel like it' thing to heart huh?"

    She rolled her eyes. "Honey, if you aren't going to be helpful, please shut up." I snickered but didn't say anything else.

    "Excuse me." Said Benny in an offended tone. "Shouldn't WE have a say in this too?" We both looked at him and he stuck out his chin. "I mean, I don't think we should surrender, but it would be nice to be asked."

    I scoffed at him. "You aren't even on the team. Abel and Mel might have a say, but lets be honest, it'll be a cold day in hell before Abel walks away from a fight, and Mel won't let him run off and punch some random assassins on his own. You two won't even be targets."

    Miles, who was looking annoyed at this point, cleared his throat. "If you are quite finished, I take it that your answer is no, and so we will move onto more...forceful methods of persuasion. I admit, I shall perhaps enjoy these more than is proper. You've all been quite rude."

    "Oh kiss my ass." I said indignantly. "You came here to fucking attack us." I looked around. "Dibs on top hat. I want to light him on fire a little bit."

    Surprisingly, that seemed to annoy Teague. "Can he just call dibs like that?" Everyone looked at him, and he said defensively. "It seems a bit childish is all."

    Callie clicked her tongue reproachfully. "Doesn't even respect dibs. Pirates. You all have no sense of honor. If we don't submit to dibs we're no better than animals. It's like ignoring when someone calls shotgun. Some things just aren't done."

    Miles had apparently had enough, because he made a sharp motion with his cane and the figures surrounding Rime's dome of ice all moved at once, each condensing a different kind of energy. I saw a few flashes of fire, that same acidic purple sludge, and a few others, all collecting above one guy holding up what looked like some kind of empty glass hammer.

    As they channeled the energy to him he siphoned it into the hammer, which began to fill with a riotous cascade of all the colors of the different energy types. Id assumed they encircled us for some sort of joint attack, but it looked like they were just trying to block us off as this one guy built up his attack. His ability seemed to be almost a different kind of invocation, though it looked like it was much less of a strain on the soul.

    When the hammer was full he stepped forward and, with a heave slammed it down at the dome. Rime had been watching it grimly and was preparing to tank it, but at the last minute I saw a warping in the air. Abel manifested a massive palm outside the dome, space warping as it waved through the intervening area. I expected a slipstream like usual to guide the hammer out of the way, but to my shock the F-ranked hammed slammed into the hand manifestation and SHATTERED it.

    Abel grunted in pain, and I saw his hand flash and begin to blacken and crack. Jessie hurried forward, laying hands on him as Mallory took up his other side, the two of them beginning to treat his hand. Still, despite the breakage, he'd managed to divert the hammer enough that it hit at an angle and skittered off, only cracking the dome instead of shattering it like I suspected would have happened.

    There was a cavernous boom as the hammer hit the ground off to one side of the dome, shattering the pavement of the parking lot and creating a massive crater beside us. As the dust and debris slowly cleared away, we all braced for a second attack, but the guy who conjured the hammer looked completely wiped out by the move.

    Miles was glaring at him in irritation as Abel stood back up, flexing his now repaired hand. I was amazed to see that the water based healing energy Mallory had fed into Jessie's life force and compounded the effect, managing to knit Abel's hand back together despite it having been damaged by a higher ranked enemy.

    "Fine." Sneered the top hat wearing man. "Your little shield is still up. But we'll have it demolished within the next ten minutes even without Samuel's ability. What are you going to do? Just sit inside and wait for us to come get you?"

    Surprisingly, Callie actually started laughing. "Oh we won't need to do that." She said with a wide smile. "Because I know something you don't seem to be aware of." Her tone was smug, and I could feel the brutal amusement over the bond, though I had no clue what it was pertaining to.

    The monocled man sneered. "And what, pray tell, might that be?"

    Callie's grin got sharper. "I know that there were thirteen people inside this dome a minute ago." My eyes widened even as Miles's did, and I quickly looked around, checking the number of people nearby, only to realize that at some point (probably when the hammer had smashed up the ground and drawn my attention) the four had vanished, each one of the quadruplets using the cover of the dust to exit the dome.

    Miles spun to scream a warning, but it was too late. Four dark forms appeared behind the encircling F-rankers, each one landing a textbook perfect sneak attack with either a small blade or some kind of power. As that happened Rime dropped the shield, and the rest of us blurred forward, Rime engaging the last remaining F-ranked as I went for Miles.

    Abel and Mel joined up with Teague and his people as they hit the small crowd of G-rankers and everything became a blur of motion, violence, and power. I triggered cast poison fire on my cane then triggered a fire attack through it, creating a massive wave of green flame that headed right for Miles.

    Callie circled around behind him to attack from his blind spot, and I smirked behind my mask where it wouldn't give anything away. She was technically honoring my dibs, but I would definitely be complaining about the interference later. For now though I just focused on the battle. We needed to capture a few of these bastards. I had questions.
  22. Threadmarks: chapter 353
    Malcolm Tent

    Malcolm Tent Experienced.

    Oct 16, 2020
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    "Well that was anticlimactic." Said Teague with a frown. "I was expecting this to be some huge ruckus, but SOMEONE." He glared at Abel. "Wasn't leaving any enemies for the rest of us."

    My mentor snickered, but the rest of us just rolled our eyes. None of us were surprised by that observation. Abel was a Master Candidate. If they had someone below F-rank that could take him out they wouldn't be hired assassins, they would be their own faction and probably IN the tournament. The more pertinent information was that Teague and the others were willing to throw in with us without blinking, which was pretty cool of them.

    Callie cleared her throat. "As unfair as the rest of us find Apollyon, we still have to thank you. This would have been harder on our own, though the most credit has to go to the four." She looked at the black robed quadruplets. "I realize that looked easy to the rest of us, but I also know as someone who fights with a partner how difficult it is to execute a four person stealth attack like that. If any of you had been even a split second off you'd have alerted the enemy and one or two might have gotten away. Thank you."

    The four nodded. They rarely spoke in front of other people, so that was probably the best she would get. Some kind of edgy assassin mystique thing probably. I looked down at Miles, who was moaning weakly on the ground. We'd taken him apart without much trouble, I'd expected him to be strong, but Callie and I together could take down a new F-ranker, which put us in the odd position of being much too strong as a duo for most G-rankers, but not good enough to fight up ranks on our own.

    I walked over to the burned but already healing mercenary and kicked him in the most damaged spot I could find. He whined and jerked, eyes opening blearily as he glared up at me. I grinned at him, not that he could see it behind my mask, but I'm sure my voice conveyed my amusement. "Aww, don't look so mad. I stopped you from bleeding too much, you should be thanking me."

    He practically snarled as he gingerly climbed to his hands and knees. "You CAUTERIZED them. With POISON. And your stab happy harlot was the one who-" I swung my cane down sharply, smashing it into the ground close enough to his head to send chunks of rock at his face. He squealed and backpedaled, looking up at me in fear.

    "You." I said calmly. "Should watch your mouth when you talk about my partner. We might need information from you, but we can always hire a necromancer to get it out of your corpse." That was a bluff. I wouldn't kill someone for bad mouthing my girlfriend. I WOULD kick the living shit out of him if he didn't watch his tone though, and putting the fear of me in him might make this whole thing go faster.

    He seemed almost...offended. "Fine. I'll be polite then. Honestly, no one has any etiquette anymore. Can't even let a man bemoan his own capture." He snorted, waving me off. "Well, go ahead. Ask what you want. Not that it'll do you much good, I'm on contract, and my NDA is nearly iron clad. Unless you have an Oathbreaker on staff you're out of luck."

    I looked at Callie, sending my impressions through the bond so she knew what I wanted. She nodded, trusting me to take the lead. Good. I had ways of handling this. I turned back to the man. "See, I believe you. I believe that you can't tell me a single thing about your client. Anyone with common sense would have made damn sure of that. I ALSO believe that you would have known that going in, and that you wouldn't be so naive as to trust your client completely."

    The smug amusement that had been bubbling up after he deflected me with the NDA comment was replaced with wariness. "I don't know what you're talking about." He said flatly.

    "Sure you do." I responded cheerfully. "I'm talking about insurance. You're a local boy, I can tell, and you might work with local forces on their own credibility. But this mess is ass deep in tournament politics, which means some of the parties involved are decidedly NOT local. A smart guy such as yourself wouldn't trust strangers as far as he could throw them. Maybe not even that far."

    I crouched down next to him, chucking him under the chin with a finger. "See, I know a thing or two about contracts, and one of the biggest flaws in a contract is that it only covers as much as the author can think to add. That's what loopholes are, things people forget to mention. That NDA for instance, would prevent you from talking about your client, but if, say, you were a very paranoid person and followed that client and happened to see who they might be meeting with, THAT person wouldn't be covered under contractual confidentiality, since the client would have no reason to add them."

    Despite our involvement in political messes I had no desire to expand my political toolbox, politics annoyed me. But dealing with sneaky shit like this was becoming second nature to me. Spending so much time in the WCP was helping me expand my worldview, and combined with my contracts skill I was figuring out all sorts of new ways to deal with people.

    Miles's face had paled noticeably, which meant I had hit the nail on the head. "If." He said quietly. "And I do mean if. I had done such a thing. That information would simply be insurance in case of difficulties with the client. It wouldn't be for sale. If it got out that I was collecting and passing information on clients the mercenary union would have my head."
    I paused. "Mercenary union?"

    Abel piped up from off to one side. "Mercs traditionally don't manage to get to E-rank and when they do they tend to join a faction because of the offered terms. A few decades ago though a particularly dangerous mercenary who called himself Rattling Bones established an organization for mercenaries in the city, topside and bottom. Over the years six more E-rankers have joined the union. It's nowhere near enough to be on the same level as the major factions, but very few of the subfactions have the muscle to make trouble with the union."

    Which meant Melinda and Alexander didn't. I hadn't expected that, but it wasn't like I didn't have an answer for it. "The same logic applies. The information isn't covered in the contract, and the insurance was only necessary because you were misinformed of our capabilities. Your client screwed you, simple as that. Did they tell you that one of your targets was directly representing the Wish Curse Palace as a candidate?"

    Telling him that was a calculated risk. Now that we were working with Frostbite word would spread up here soon enough anyway, might as well get something out of it. His face paled even further at the words, so clearly they hadn't mentioned that. Hell, I wasn't even sure whoever hired him had known, but it was enough of an excuse that he could tell us without compromising his reputation.

    "You'll let me go if I tell you?" His voice wasn't confident or even resigned anymore. He sounded scared. Like someone who had just found out the pool they were swimming in connected to the ocean, and there were sharks in the water.

    I looked to Callie, and she nodded. She didn't want to kill some random mercenary either. This guy had come at us to injure, even if he'd been a dick about it. I genuinely believed that he wasn't trying to kill us. "Yes." I said reassuringly. "We'll let you go if you tell us." He started to relax but I cut in sharply. "Assuming you have actual information. If you're stringing us along we'll hand you over to the Unity and let them deal with you."

    That was the furthest I was willing to take the threat, and it seemed like it was enough. "I was approached by...a certain party." He said carefully. "A few days ago. The job was quick and easy, but I knew that a lot of other mercs in the city had been contacted. Outsiders showing up and then a massive operation going down? That stank of trouble. So I did what I do. I reached out to an associate of mine and arranged to have my client followed discretely. I didn't TELL him what he was doing, obviously, that would have violated the NDA, but we've worked together on jobs like this before."

    He groaned in pain as he sat up, but settled down after a second. Callie gestured to Jessie and she stepped forward, Benny at her side, to start patching him up a bit, since he was helping. "They were paranoid, of course." He continued after he got a bit of relief. "Most people I work with are. But the big trap about paranoia is that it's self congratulating. If someone thinks they're being follow and takes precautions, once that's done their own bias tells them they must be safe. We've been at this a while. My guy stuck to them, and eventually they led us to who we needed."

    I groaned. "What are you, hourly? This glimpse into the inner workings of the life of a mercenary is fascinating, but I don't need all the set up. Get to the point."

    He chuckled. "Sorry. Right. Anyway I put my guy on their trail and he followed them for a bit, and he eventually ended up following the target back to a meeting at the Academy. He met with one of the students and exchanged an envelope, then chatted for a while and left. My guy couldn't hear what they said, they used Stealth Skills, but the client didn't go anywhere else until our next meeting."

    "Ok." I said slowly. "That helps a bit, but there are a million students at the academy. Plus we know that the faction behind this is most likely one of the five, since any smaller group would be insane to try to bully a bunch of representatives from the largest forces in the universe. Must be someone else." I sighed. "It's fine though, you gave us what you had. You can go."

    He shook his head. "No. That's just it. The person my client met with wasn't a member of the Unity at all. They were a student at the academy, but they were there on some kind of diplomatic mission or something."

    I felt the bottom drop out of my stomach as he said that, and desperately hoped his answer to my next question, wasn't what I was pretty sure it would be. My voice was rough with shock as I forced myself to ask. "Did...did he give you a description of this contact by any chance? Maybe some distinguishing features that could be used to identify them if we run into them later?"

    "Oh sure." He said casually, unaware he was throwing a lit stick of dynamite into the morale of my entire team. "He was actually pretty excited about it. There aren't many of her kind around Callus after all, and definitely almost none at the Academy. Like I said diplomatic mission or something. Guess you don't forget the first time you see an elf."

    We all turned to look at Benny, and even with his mask I could see my friend's face paling. We only knew one elf at the academy, and she was indeed on a diplomatic mission. So the question was, why had Celine just arranged to have us attacked by mercenaries?
  23. MichaelSuave

    MichaelSuave Not too sore, are you?

    Oct 27, 2020
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    Oh Lucy (Celine) you got some splaining to do!!
    Malcolm Tent likes this.
  24. Revanandfriends

    Revanandfriends Making the rounds.

    Apr 25, 2019
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    So I now wonder if she is a honeypot.
  25. Threadmarks: Chapter 354
    Malcolm Tent

    Malcolm Tent Experienced.

    Oct 16, 2020
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    Benny was, understandably, not at all thrilled to find out his girlfriend hired people to assault and possibly murder us. I was still shaky on what their orders had been, but regardless of whether the intent was to take our lives it had clearly been to at least screw us over, and my best friend was devastated.

    We debated over what to do for a short while, but in the end, we only really had one option. We headed for the Academy to talk to Celine. I wasn't sure what she might have to say, but in the end, she deserved a chance to speak her piece, and Benny deserved a chance to hear it.

    Jessie, to my surprise, was livid. She and Celine had bonded during the siege, and she and Benny had gotten closer waiting for us during our time in Doomtown. For her own sake I hoped the elf had a good explanation for all this.
    We were all unusually quiet during the ride, arranging to meet up with Teague and the others later while we went and handled what could only be described as personal business.

    I expected Benny to hang back when we arrived, let Callie and I take the lead since this would already be hard on him, but my friend was the first one out of the car. We had to hurry to catch as he purposefully strode through the campus, ignoring everyone as he approached the dorm where Grimmengap lived. When he arrived,he pounded on the door calmly, still and cold as he waited for someone to answer.

    Sarah was the one who opened the door. "Oh!" She said happily. "Hey guys. I thought you had your match today? How did it go?" The soft spoken blonde was as happy and upbeat as usual, but when she saw our faces, her smile wilted a bit. "Ah, not so good then?"

    That was a reasonable conclusion to come to, but Benny just shook his head. "They did fine. Is Cel here? I need to talk to her."

    "Sure..." Sarah said slowly, seeming unsure what to make of this sudden and apparently unpleasant visit. "She's in her room. She's not feeling well today. Guess she had some trouble sleeping last night."

    Benny seemed to ALMOST react to that, his eyes flickering with a bit of hope before he squashed it down. "She'll want to see me. It's important. Tell her we met some friends of hers outside the arena and wanted to talk about them." His voice was thick and raspy, as if he was slightly sick, and I felt my heart clench for him, knowing how awful this must be.

    Benny hadn't been in Doomtown with us, hadn't been in the tournament or involved in our dueling training. He'd been doing his own training some of that time sure, but he'd also been spending most of his time with Celine. Been getting closer to her and getting to know and care about her. I tried to imagine how I would feel knowing that Callie had potentially been planning to stab me in the back for our whole relationship, and I just...couldn't.

    Clearly sensing my best friend's seriousness Sarah nodded and turned, hurrying back inside to ask her team leader what to do. She came back a minute later looking worried. "She says you guys can come back." She paused. "Are you sure it needs to be right now? She looks really bad."

    I bet she did. But we just shook our heads and pushed past. Abel and Mel hung back, since this wasn't really their deal, Mel intercepted Sarah, asking the girl about the wolves they had sleeping around the dorm, while Abel started chatting up Martin, much to my relief and gratitude.

    We headed back to Celine's room, and when we knocked on the door, a faint voice told us to come in. Celine was sitting at the mirror, brushing her hair, and Sarah hadn't been kidding, she looked...bad. Dark circles under her eyes, sunken cheeks, and a dull expression somehow different from her normally placed countenance. Her eyes stayed locked on the mirror for a second when we entered, before dragging dazedly over to us.

    "Oh." She said in a quavering voice. "Hello everyone. I was glad to hear about your match going well. Sarah said you met some friends of mine?" Her tone was high and kind of unsteady, like she was trying not to cry, and I noted that this was probably the most emotional I'd ever seen her. Benny had been coldly furious this whole time, but I could see real concern on his face, and I didn't blame him.

    He didn't let it deter him though. Forcing himself to focus on the pain he was feeling. "Yeah." He said lightly. "We met some people who mentioned knowing you. Guy named Miles, and a few people from the mercenary guild. They're friends of a friend apparently."

    She swallowed hard. "Ah. Those friends." She closed her eyes, taking a shaky breath. "That's...unfortunate."

    "Unfortunate?" Said Benny calmly. "Why is it unfortunate Celine? Is it unfortunate that you betrayed all your friends and had us attacked? Is it unfortunate that we found out? Or is it unfortunate that you had to waste all your time pretending to give a shit about me to accomplish your mission? Maybe it's unfortunate we didn't just die and save you from this conversation."

    Her eyes snapped open as she whirled to stare at him frantically. "No!" I was shocked by the vehemence in voice voice, and from their reactions so were the others. She was...well I wasn't sure what she was, but it was certainly dramatic. "No one was supposed to die. No one was supposed to even get seriously hurt. I was VERY clear about that. I hired FIVE F-rankers to counter your minder, made sure that they would strike when you were in a small group and overwhelm you."

    She was almost pleading as she said it. "There were so many of them so they could handle you without any danger. You weren't in harms way at all. I made sure of it. I know that doesn't make it better, but I did my best to make sure you would be as safe as possible."

    Benny laughed coldly. "Oh, I guess I should be grateful. My girlfriend hired a bunch of thugs to beat me and my friends, but only a LITTLE bit." He threw his hands up. "All better! That fixes things."

    The groan of frustration that came out of her mouth was almost animalistic in intensity. "I didn't WANT to do it. But if I didn't one of the others would have handled the hiring and they might have sent people to actually kill you. I was TRYING to keep you safe." Her eyes frantically scanned over all of us. "Please. I didn't want anyone to get hurt. I was trying to protect you all. I DO care about you Benicio. That's why I made my sister give me this assignment."

    "Ok." He said casually. "So you care. Not enough to be loyal to me. Not enough to pick me over your family, but sure, let's say you care. How long have you been planning this?"

    Callie cut in. "From the beginning." She said solemnly. "That was why they sent you here. For this tournament. You enrolled here at the academy to wait for this. Is it really that big of a deal? Like Impact is important, but a few points of it can't make that much of a difference."

    Celine just shook her head sadly. "You're wrong. The competition between the younger generation in the galactic centers is horrifying. A few points of Impact could be the difference between one of the faction heirs claiming glory and resources in several of the major competitions. There's almost nothing the Queen wouldn't do to get even a small advantage for one of her sons or daughters. It's the same for any of the major factions."

    Her eyes pleaded with us almost as fiercely as her voice did. "This isn't going to get better. It's going to get worse. This was the best thing for all of you. If you had agreed to drop out of the tournament early they never would have paid any attention to you." She looked at Callie. "You were thinking about it already. You TOLD me that. It would have been so much safer."

    "The Fairieland was preparing for this for a while, to invest so much manpower." I said slowly. "They set things up so they could attack all the major factions and weed out as much competition as possible. You mentioned your sister. Is she the higher up that's responsible for all this."

    Celine's eyes were filling with tears. "Yes." She whispered. "My sister Nalia had been here for quite some time. She has special equipment to prevent herself from being noticed, it suppresses her aura constantly.

    Benny snorted. "Well, guess that explains why I never met your mom. She didn't need to meet me not to approve. Bet your sister told you to dump me as soon as you stuck the knife in huh?"

    "I wouldn't!" She snapped. "She told me to end things weeks ago. She said I had enough information, that I'd made inroads with your other friends. She said your training was enough of an excuse to break things off without alienating me, but I wouldn't do it." Her tears were flowing now, but she wasn't sniffling or anything. Celine was a quiet crier.
    "I feel so flattered." He said woodenly. "I meant enough to you that you wanted to really drag things out before you threw me under the bus. Glad to know I was at least a good distraction."

    Celine looked like she wanted to pull her hair out. I reminded myself not to feel bad for her. This could all be bullshit. She was a courtier, putting on the waterworks and pretending to be upset was her bread and butter. Her shoulders slumped as her eyes dropped to the ground, and I found myself struck by how...defeated she looked.

    "I know. I know I can't fix it. I know it's too late. But I am sorry. I just...I thought it would all work out." The desperation leaked away, leaving only hollow emptiness and shame. "I thought I could keep you safe and do my job at the same time. I just...I've never had friends before. I wanted to keep you. All of you, but especially you Benicio. I realize that was selfish and stupid."

    Her eyes snapped up, emotion filling them again as she forced herself to look him in the eyes. "But if you ever cared enough to listen. Listen now. You don't understand how bad this will get. The Fairieland tried to make the first as devastating as possible, but if you drove off your attackers than the less effective groups will have failed as well. Retaliation will be swift and brutal, and it will not be targeted. Please. PLEASE drop out of the tournament." She aimed that comment at Callie, obviously. "Please don't get yourselves killed playing above your paygrade."

    Benny just shook his head in disgust. "How am I supposed to trust that? How are any of us? How am I supposed to be sure you aren't manipulating us, AGAIN."

    "Because I love you." She whispered. "Because I don't want you to die. I don't want you to lose your best friend, or to see Shane lose Callie, or to see Jessie die. Because I care." She sighed brokenly. "But you have no reason to believe that. Or anything I say." Her eyes never left his though. "But...do you?"

    The anger went out of Benny, and he just looked...tired. Just as tired and sickly as she did. "I don't know what I believe anymore Celine. Thanks for that." Then he turned and walked out of the room, and the elf lost her composure and finally broke down into wracking sobs. We all left then. As much as we might be angry at her, some things shouldn't be seen by other people.
  26. Threadmarks: chapter 355
    Malcolm Tent

    Malcolm Tent Experienced.

    Oct 16, 2020
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    Benny didn't look so good. That was to be expected. I left Callie to talk to the others about what we'd learned and deal with next steps (sometimes it was really nice not to be in charge) and pulled my best friend aside to talk. Since we'd left the dorm he'd been quiet and almost listless. I hated seeing him like that, and I knew if it was me he would have been right there to talk me through it, so I did the same.

    Or rather, I DIDN'T talk. I just sat, and waited. We were out behind the house, sitting down and staring off through the yards of the places nearby, and he wasn't saying a word. That was fine, I could do quiet too. I'd leave him to his thoughts until he was ready to say something. He sat there, staring off into space for a while, before finally saying. "I want to just ignore it."

    I shrugged. "Then do that, it's your relationship."

    He scowled at me. "What are you? Stupid? She lied to me, almost got us both killed, or at least seriously messed up. I can't just forgive that!"

    I looked at him levelly, and his shoulders slumped with a sigh. "Which was your point. So, what? I never talk to her again? I can't even imagine that. I miss her already you know? It's been like an hour since we left and I want to call and hear her voice again."

    That I could understand. "I don't think you should just never talk to her again." I said carefully. "Hell, I won't tell you not to forgive her. She was thinking of you at least a bit during all this. But she's also way too subservient to her family and that's going to go badly for you long term." I shrugged. "Which is to say...I don't know? This isn't exactly my area of expertise. I've been in one relationship and I basically won the lottery."

    He nodded. "Yeah. I know. I want to forgive her. But I don't want to forgive her because I want to forgive her, you know?" I cocked an eyebrow at him (I'd taken off my mask when I sat down) and he rolled his eyes. "I MEAN that I want to decide based on the merits of her actions, and not be influenced by how much I care about her."

    It took real effort to hold back the snickers, and when he looked at me I just lost it and burst out laughing. He just glared at me. "Are you stupid?" I asked incredulously once I finally stopped cackling. "It's a relationship. How much you care about her is all that matters. You're not a robot Benny, even if you sometimes swap your parts like one."

    "You're a dick." He said flatly. "But...you're not wrong. So what the fuck do I do man? Do I call her up and try to make things work. Do I cut all ties?" He sounded a bit scared.

    "I'd say you wait." I said with a shrug. "Give it time. Let yourself cool off, let her think things through. If things are going to work out you both need to approach it from a place that isn't so...fraught."

    "That." Came a voice from behind us. "Is actually surprisingly good advice." We turned to see Zeke leaning against the wall casually. "Better than I'd have expected from you. That girl of yours really is good for you. Color me surprised, I thought you'd never grow up."

    I stuck my tongue out at him, not at all proving his point. Benny looked up at him calmly. "What are you doing out here Zeke?"

    My uncle shrugged. "Heard about your bad news. Wanted to offer my condolences. Also wanted to say not to hold it against her too much. From the sound of it she tried to shield you more than most would. It can be hard to ignore a family like that when you grow up in it." He sighed. "I dated an elf girl once. Fucking nobility get their claws in deep. They have a long time to practice."

    Benny looked troubled. "If it was just me I could probably get past it. But it wasn't me, was it? I'm not on the team for the tournament. She tried to hurt Shane and Callie. I don't know if I can get over that."

    Zeke nodded, walking over to sit down next to us, leaning back against the wall. "You know. I've known you almost your whole life. You were just a little thing when you and Shane became friends. And I've always thought you were good for him, got him out of his comfort zone. But I never really thought you had what it took to stick it out once he got his ability. I thought he'd leave you behind, that you wouldn't be able to keep up."

    "Gee." Said Benny sullenly. "Thanks."

    "My point." Said Zeke firmly as he rolled his eyes. "Is that what you just said was probably the first time I've considered you an actual companion rather than a freeloader. Not that I'm saying it was right or wrong. But it makes me think you're the kind of person who might make it out of all this alive."

    I looked at him oddly. "I always figured you thought of Benny like my version of you. You and dad were close when you were younger right? And he was raised outside the family, so when the two of you were friends before you became the scary badass you are today, right?"

    He stared off into the distance, nodding slowly. "Yeah. Yeah we were. But do you think we were the only one?" He asked sadly. "All the candidates have friends, kid. They all consider bringing them along. Hell, the whole Candidate process is aimed at cultivating strong allies over time, it's natural to make sure that your earlier and staunchest allies are the ones who come along with you."

    That made sense to me, but Zeke wasn't done. "But it usually doesn't happen. Most of them can't keep up. They get left behind, or just decide not to follow. I'm the exception, not the rule. It takes...a certain kind of person, to abandon everything you have to follow a friend into the unknown. It's not an easy life." He looked down. "I don't recognize myself some days. The prices I paid weren't on Eli, but they were steep. Sometimes I'm not sure if they were worth it."

    I looked at him in concern. "So you regret it then? Leaving your planet? Following dad back to the clan?"

    "No." He said thoughtfully. "I guess I don't. If I had regrets I wouldn't have made it this far. Most of them were diluted as I became what I am, if they ever really existed." He looked at Benny. "My point is that you're going to have to make sacrifices for this if you want it. I did. I wasn't sure you could do that before. Now I'm a little more convinced. That said, it might be wise to consider what's going through your head as I say all this. Consider the attachment you feel to your family and your reticence to leave, and then consider that Celine might be feeling the same things."

    Benny's eyes widened, as he realized what Zeke was saying, in a roundabout way. "What happened to making sacrifices?" He said wryly.

    Zeke shrugged again. "Giving some things up is one thing, but you don't need to give up everything. I'm not saying to get over it or anything, I'm just saying if it's this hard for you to let go of your family, imagine how it must be for her. The fact that she did as much as she did is pretty damn impressive."

    That got a thoughtful nod from my best friend, and he drifted off into silence, but I felt the need to ask another question, once that didn't have to do with any of the drama with Celine. "What about you? Do you still have a family? You said you had to give up a lot. Have you seen them since? What were they like?"

    A wistful smile crossed his face. "I was part of a small clan on a C-ranked planet called Rossus. Elijah's guardian was a crabby old bastard named Edgar, one of his uncles. Malachai always took care of his kids, and Eli and his brother and sister are among his favorites. Edgar was B-rank, like I am now, though much less personable. He ignored Eli mostly, and Eli grew up at my place."

    His tone was somehow sad and happy at the same time. Like he missed those days, but thinking about them hurt him. "I lived with my parents, two sisters and three brothers. I was the only one close to Eli. My mother stopped talking to me when I told her I was leaving. My younger sister cried. My older sister told me she understood. My brothers said they hated me."

    He chuckled glumly. "I checked in on them a few decades later. Cassia, my older sister, became the matriarch of our clan and reached C-rank. Olena, my younger sister, got married and had three children. My youngest brother Cyrus became an elder in the clan. Cassia boosted the two of them to peak E-rank with pills, and the other two died in a border dispute with a rival family."

    I was stunned. Zeke, my uncle Zeke, had nieces and nephews. "I'd like to meet them sometime maybe." I said quietly. "If you're interested in letting me."

    Chuckling, he patted my back. "Maybe someday, kid. But probably not soon. I stay away from them. You know how Fantasy works. Draws us toward things that are...interesting. I'm real interesting, and having me around might draw them into something more interesting than they can deal with."

    Benny was still quiet, but he was looking at Zeke a bit differently. My uncle smiled at him. "Thank you." He said sincerely. "For being there for him when I can't. And for being a better friend than I gave you credit for." He stood up. "Anyway. I won't bother you all. I'll just leave you with a bit of advice. I don't have any regrets about leaving home, but I DO have regrets. I can tell you one thing for sure. I regret the people I DIDN'T give chances to a hell of a lot more than the ones I did, even when it didn't turn out well."

    With that uncharacteristic bit of seriousness Zeke turned and strolled away, leaving Benny to stare thoughtfully off into the distance. I clapped him on the shoulder and got up to go inside. He'd talked, he'd listened, now he needed to process. Benny had always been like that. Once he heard what he needed to hear he needed time for it to sink in. He wasn't going to call her right now or anything, but he would think about everything at least.

    I headed back in to meet up with Callie, who was talking to the others, and slipped my hand into hers, twining our fingers together. She didn't stop talking, though I caught a flash of a smile at the corners of her mouth as she squeezed back. Seeing how bad Benny was feeling over Celine did one good thing at least, it reminded me how lucky I was.

    Sadly being romantically lucky didn't make me lucky in other ways. We knew more about this mess now, knew the main antagonist from the Fairieland was a female E-ranked elf named Nalia. She didn't seem to know I was a Candidate though she almost definitely knew about mom given Grimmengap had been there for Aiden's explanation about that. Which meant she didn't know about Zeke. We still had advantages, but we had to move fast. First step was figuring out where the hell she was.
    Quenster06, Minion #Q, chrnno and 6 others like this.
  27. Threadmarks: chapter 356
    Malcolm Tent

    Malcolm Tent Experienced.

    Oct 16, 2020
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    I wished we could have taken the next day off so I could keep Benny company while he thought things through. Sadly, that wasn't in the cards. We had to start looking into our next opponent immediately. We only had the day to prepare for the fifth round, and after the next fight we wouldn't even have that. With three hundred arenas in the city the fifth round would take place in a single day, as would every round until the eighth. Which meant our downtime was officially gone.

    After granting Rime her wishes and passing the elixirs to Benny (all Focus based bringing him up to one hundred eighty three focus), we headed out to meet up with the other teams in we knew in the tournament. Since we had no leads on a new source for the tournament, our best bet was to talk to the other teams, especially the ones who lost, so we could start compiling information on the groups that were still in.

    Since any of the winning groups would only have information on defeated enemies talking to people like Lament but Silent Dagger's team and Beast Lord Garden would be easily able to share some info. We had them meet us at Deva again, because the food there was fantastic. Rime decided to wait outside, not feeling up to a big social event, so it was just Callie and I after Jessie headed off to do some errands.

    When we arrived, Sloane and Abigail were sitting on one side of the table, and their teams were mingling on the other. They'd saved seats for Callie and I, and we both plopped down next to them, stopping to order our meals before pleasantries. Once we'd done that Callie gave the other girl a hug. "Hey, Sloane, good to see you. I was sorry to hear you guys got dinged out."

    The Beast Lord Initiate frowned, sighing deeply. "Not just me. All of our teams got bounced. Mine was the strongest and with us losing the other three didn't have much chance."

    Callie made a sympathetic sound. "I'm sure you guys did great. Winning isn't everything, you'll definitely get some stat points out of the match for putting on a good show." Her tone wasn't conciliatory, more upbeat and positive, and despite seeming to appreciate it I didn't think Sloane was buying.

    "No." Said the other girl. "We didn't. We got crushed. The Burning Heaven Abyss is one of the factions with a Master Candidate. Their gunner absolutely destroyed us. From what I can tell they built their whole team around him. Two augmenters and a heavy to play defense up close. Their defender is tough too. Wren and Falken double teamed him and couldn't leave a scratch."

    Abigail made a sympathetic noise. "I can sympathize with such sentiments. My own heart grows dark with sorrow as my mortality eclipses my hopes for the future. Curses and malaise on the heads of the swine who divert the paths of our bright destinies, leading us down the road to ruination."

    I stared at her blankly. "I...have absolutely no idea what the hell you just said."

    Sloane snickered. "Don't sweat it. You pick up Abby speak pretty fast when you're around her long enough. She basically said 'sucks to be you, I'm pretty pissed at the assholes who beat us too'."

    Callie raised an eyebrow. "Is the whole super formal archaic speech thing really useful? Or is it just a preference thing?"
    Abigail smiled serenely. "Tales fly swiftly on wings of whispers of the maiden with the transcendant speech. Worthwhile? Who can say, but the paths we take lead ever to the same peaks, naught a one walks them with less alacrity as can be managed at their utmost."

    I tried to puzzle that out, but Callie picked it up first. "Translation, we all do crazy shit to get stronger." She said with a smile. "Fair point. So what about you guys? Who did you lose to?"

    Sloane cut in before Abigail could respond. "Whoa there." She said before the other girl could respond. "Sorry sweetie, but I don't think any of us will get a word of that. They fought the Night Demon Throne. Super creepy group of berserker nutcases. I was actually at their fight. Those weirdos attack each other to boost their power before the fight. They have some kind of ramping ability that makes them stronger the more injured they get."

    That didn't sound great. I was about to ask more about them, when the scan ring on my finger vibrated. I left Callie to talk things out with the others as I stepped away, answering the call to find a surprising face. "Celine." I said calmly. "Wasn't expecting to hear from you any time soon. Anything I can help you with?"

    The elf girl looked awful. Her eyes were bloodshot and the dark circles around them were deeper, her skin was sallow and waxy, and her gaze was hazy like she was too tired to really function. Her voice was a rasp when she answered. "Benny wouldn't answer my call."

    "Can you blame him?" I asked gently. I was at least slightly pissed at her myself, but being an asshole to someone clearly in this much pain seemed like beating a dead horse. That did NOT mean I was going to humor her. "I don't have anything much to say to you either Celine, so if you don't have anything you need to talk about I'm going to go."

    Her eyes cleared, focusing on me as they widened. "NO!" She yelped desperately. "Please. No. Wait. I have information. I checked with some of my sources and found out..." She paused, looking around. "Information you can use. I can't talk about it over an unsecured line. It's important though. If you can meet me I can give it to you. I promise it'll be worth your while."

    I could only think of one obvious bit of information we could use on short notice, our next opponent. The question was why she would give that information to us when it would be directly counter to the interests of the Fairieland. That very question made this extremely suspicious. "Why would I trust you enough to meet?" I asked blandly.

    She sighed. "You shouldn't. I know that. But I had to offer. I used all my resources getting this information. If you are going to use the it you need to do it quickly." The look of frustrated agony on her face was kind of heart rending, especially from the normally taciturn elf. "I...I just want to make things right. I wanted to use the resources I had to do something to help all of you."

    "I believe you." Came a voice from behind me. I jumped, whirling to find Callie behind me. She shot me a warm smile. "I felt your shock through the bond, this seemed important so I excused myself." She looked back to Celine. "I believe you." She repeated. "But we aren't coming to you. That would be pure idiocy. Coming to see you on campus was a calculated risk because you wouldn't have had time to hear about us finding out and you were in Unity territory, but with prep time I absolutely won't bring my people to a place you'll have an advantage."

    Celine's head drooped. "It's fine." She said quietly. "I'll come to you. I can meet you at your place to hand over the info. That way you'll be under the protection of your strongest backers and all your defenses. Is that acceptable?" Her tone was formal in a way that reminded me of the old Celine.

    Smiling, Callie nodded, her tone gentler than I'd have expected. "It is. We'll meet you there immediately." I looked at her sharply, but she just ignored me, saying goodbye. Once I shut off the screen her smile dropped and she gave me a worried look. "I know. He might not be ready to see her. He can wait inside. But we need this information. Not to mention this is a good chance for her to show him that she wants to make amends."

    I pulled her into my arms, smiling. "You big softie. You just wanted to give them the chance to start to reconcile." She shrugged coolly. Smiling, I let her go and stepped back. "Alright, we should go then. We don't want her to beat us there." I texted Jessie who was looking at plants nearby to come pick us up, and then Benny to fill him in on the situation as Callie went to say goodbye to the others and apologize for cutting things short. She also paid for the meal, since it had been our invite.

    Once Jessie showed up we headed back to the house, filling her in on the way. She was a bit suspicious, having taken Celine's betrayal to heart more than any of us, but when we explained everything she seemed to come around. "Well." She said tightly. "If she's coming to the house where Zeke and the ice queen over there are waiting I doubt she can cause much trouble." She nodded to Rime, who was in the back seat either pretending to sleep or ACTUALLY ignoring us. "I'm sure you already told Benny about all this?"

    "Of course." I said. "He wants to sit in on the meeting actually." She glanced at me in the mirror with concern and I shrugged. "I don't like the idea either, but it's his decision. It's not my place to tell him how to handle his life."

    She sighed. "I guess. I don't know. I'm not happy about all this of course, but based on some of our conversations maybe I'm not TOTALLY surprised." Catching our glances in the mirror she gave a guilty shrug. "Looking back, some of the things we talked about back when we were working on the perimeter for the siege might have hinted a bit at how beholden she was to her family. I just didn't notice it."

    She snarled, slapping the steering wheel. "Which is my fault. I'm the one who is supposed to puzzle out stuff like that. The one who gets people to say too much and listens when they do. I dropped the ball, and now Benny is hurting and it's all my fault."

    Her voice was raw, and I felt a pang of sympathy for Jessie. We hadn't really checked in with her about this because Benny was so much more affected. Seemed like she's taken it to heart more than we'd thought she would. Callie leaned forward and squeezed her shoulder.

    "Hey." Said my girlfriend softly. "Stop that. This is not your fault. It isn't Benny's. This is Celine's mess, and further up the blame chain it's her sister and mother's fault."

    I nodded sagely. "It's true. You mess up more than enough. No need to take credit for someone else's mistakes on top of that."

    Jessie giggled, rolling her eyes as she flipped me off in the rear view mirror. As she did that, we finally turned the corner heading back to the house, and we all braced ourselves for the upcoming mess. Regardless of intentions there was a lot of raw emotion involved here, and this was going to be dramatic and painful for SOMEBODY. As we pulled up, we could see Celine standing outside the house across from Benny.

    Annoyed we hadn't beaten her here, we hopped out of the car and made our way over to where they were talking. Benny's face was closed off, but not cold, and as we approached he nodded to us solemnly. "Hey guys. Glad you're back. Celine stopped by. She says she has information we can use." He turned back to her, saying flatly. "Go ahead."

    She swallowed hard before turning to us. "I've been digging into it and I've discovered the identity of your next enemy. I wanted to tell you as soon as possible so you can prepare for the fight." She took a deep breath. "Your next battle will be against the Burning Heaven Abyss." Ah. Well. I could understand why she would think that was urgent. Shit.
  28. Threadmarks: chapter 357
    Malcolm Tent

    Malcolm Tent Experienced.

    Oct 16, 2020
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    After doing Rime's wishes and handing over the elixirs to Benny (officially maxing out his elixir cap and bringing his Might up to one eighty nine and his stat total to five hundred and three) we headed for the arena to wait for the match to start, and we went over our various strategies for the fight in the waiting area.

    The plan for going up against the Burning Heaven Abyss was pretty much "Abel fights the Master Candidate" again. I had zero delusions that I could beat most Master Candidates, but even less of a hope of taking down a fucking gunslinger who could use the terrifying abilities I'd seen from Abel and Lament. Which left us going up against the other three that Sloane had mentioned.

    Two augmenters. Callie and I should be able to take them, but it would be stupid to assume they didn't KNOW that. More likely than not at least one of them would probably be buffing the defender, who was apparently already a total monster. Hell, both of them might be doing that, you don't really NEED more raw power than being a Master Candidate in a tourney like this. Either way, the defender would definitely be sticking close enough to protect those two as well as the gunner.

    Unfortunately we had no idea what the gunner's ability was, since Sloane hadn't been able to push him to use it. As a Master Candidate her spear skill was enough that it had taken a full team to push her into using her lightning power, and one with a HUGE terrain advantage to boot. We would most likely be enough to force the gunner to use his, but that still left us blindsided.

    When they finally called us out we moved into the arena slowly and with extreme caution. I was half expecting to be ambushed, but when stepped onto the sand we found the other team waiting for us calmly.

    Burning Heaven Abyss were...impressive. They wore what looked like black leather armor accented with gold, hoods over their heads and the top halves of their faces hidden by black metal masks that glinted almost like mercury. The cloaks themselves were lined with bright red silk, and a few tassles of red were strategically placed along the armor. They each wore a mantle over their shoulders, and gloves, leaving their arms bare from mid bicep to mid forearm, and lined with black tattoos that matched the golden traceries of symbols on the armor.

    There were two women and two men, the women almost identical short brunettes, and the two men being a study in contrasts, one tall and muscular with olive skin and one incredibly short and pale with pitch black hair. Based on the holsters on his hips the shorter one was the Master Candidate, but it was jarring to see them standing so orderly and relaxed waiting for us.

    The tall man was the one who spoke when we stepped out. Based on the MASSIVE F-ranked shield on his back he was the defender, and I was kind of annoyed that shields counted as defensive equipment because I was sure he could and would smash us over the fucking heads with that thing. "Greetings." He said in a resonant baritone.

    Callie nodded. "Hello. I'm Nightstrike from the Starchaser Pavilion, these are my teammates Appolyon. Starbreaker, and Solomon."

    "Of course." Said the man politely. "I am Raka, these are Sult, Truva, and Forn. We represent the Burning Heaven Abyss." He had an indefinable accent I'd never heard before, something crisp and formal, it put me in mind of nobility of some kind.

    Forn, the gunner, smirked. "I doubt they know what that is Rak. Remember we're talking to hicks here. Admirable they made it this far, but even among the wider scale forces we're tougher than most." He sighed, as if he was being given a chore of some kind. "Tell you what. How about you all just concede. No reason for us to slap you around just to be mean. This way you save some face and we don't have to waste the energy stomping your teeth in."

    Raka put a hand to his face with a sigh. "Forn, I've told you that making offers like that is counterproductive. They WON'T be saving face now, because you just put it like that, and will be almost obligated to fight us. Not to mention your antagonistic and condescending tone."

    "Oh." Said the smaller man conversationally. Then he shrugged. "My bad." And his hands blurred as he drew both guns and leveled them at us.

    The bark of firing pistols filled the air as he unloaded them at us, though I noted he mostly aimed at limbs and other nonlethal spots. Regardless, it didn't matter that much because Abel was just as fast and his own hands blurred. My eyes widened in shock as my mentor pressed his fingers in the air and created a series of finger width spatial slipstreams, one in front of each bullet.

    Watching each of the bullets slide around us like that was shocking, especially since something in those guns was propelling them at ABSURD speeds. Forn looked genuinely shocked at the response, telling me he hadn't done much research on us, but he calmly ejected the magazines, letting them slip to the ground, and, letting go of his guns midair, withdrew a pair of new ones and calmly reached up to grab one gun after another to reload them.

    Abel, not one to let an opening pass him by, stepped forward, vanishing in a blur of warping space and appeared in front of the group, throwing a punch at the gunner. Instead of throwing a bus sized punch this time though, he stopped right before he reached them and raised both arms. Space warped and a series of smaller images of his arms were left behind, and when he punched out, the six blows overlapped in a way I'd never seen him do before.

    Raka reacted FAST. Managing to get his shield out and slam it into the sand in front of his teammate. There was a catastrophic BOOM as Abel's superimposed blow smashed into the shield and the fucking F-rank artifact CRACKED. Granted, it was a really small crack, but still. The explosion of sand and force would probably have blown him away, if Sult and Truva, the twins hadn't lashed out a hand each to augment his power.

    Still, even with the boost, the explosive pressure of that single punch hurled the team apart. Raka was forced to dive for the twins, who were the much weaker part of their party, leaving Forn open as he brought his now reloaded guns back up to bear on Abel.

    A pair of train sized barrels appeared in the air, and Forn blitzed a series of shots at Abel, absolutely monstrous bullets tearing through the air at my teach. Abel raised both hands, manifested a pair of palm images and neatly redirected the flurry of bullets, taking a step closer with each movement.

    Sadly I wasn't able to watch too closely because I had to back up Mel, who was in the midst of attacking Raka as buffed by the two girls. The big bastard was strong enough to tank what I was pretty sure was the first serious punch I'd seen Abel ever throw and sure enough, when we got in close we realized he was MUCH stronger than any of us individually.
    Mel, being a fire user, was monstrously stacked on Might, so she wasn't exactly helpless, and combined with the flames themselves was able to at least get his attention, but he'd condensed the sand around him into some kind of earthen battle form and the heat wasn't getting to him.

    He swung the shield forward at her like a club, and I lashed out with my cane, touching Mel's shoulder and focusing as I triggered my strongest defensive ability over her whole body. The strain of using Stone Limb across a whole person and triggering a density shifted triple strength attack and a Mercy Kill, along with Consecration of Flame just for the boost, was almost too much for me on such short notice, but I felt the bond flex and Callie take on some of it, allowing me to get away with the move with only a quick burst of head pain.

    Even with the huge increase in power from the gala training that had been rough, but it was enough that the powerful blow of the shield stopped, only slamming Mel back instead of seriously injuring her. As she caught her footing again, she roared with effort, and a massive wave of flames appeared behind her, before condensing into a huge fire avatar of herself. She snarled and slammed her palms together and the avatar condensed, layering over her body and turning the magma covered figure into a living statue of flame.

    She hauled back with a roar of rage and, driving her fist forward with almost as much power as I'd seen from Abel, smashed it into the cracked shield.

    There was a tortured groan from the metal as the already fractured artifact was superheated and the crack widened. Before the man could adjust, a MASSIVE hammer or shadow slammed into him, sending him sprawling. I triggered Double Trouble, appearing behind him and swung my cane, which I'd spent all of yesterday charging up a blow for, at the shield, triggering another triple strength density shifted blow, and a Mercy Kill as I released all that stored up power.

    Two things happened when I did that. First. The still fragile shield finally broke under the immense amount of power I'd had stored in my cane. Second. My cane fucking EXPLODED. Without even thinking I released the thing and triggered Double Trouble as fast as I could, just in time to MOSTLY avoid the fucking conflagration of toxic flame as the shattering cane released not only the stored force, but all the power inside it at once.

    I cursed, dropping to my knees and holding my currently charred arm, which had been flash fried even under my armor, though the F-rank defensive item had mostly spared me from the poison aspect of the flame. I triggered a healing burst and scan heal, and when that wasn't enough did two more for good measure. I almost groaned with relief as my skin started the repair itself.

    Once I attended my injuries I looked up and around, trying to figure out what had happened. Raka...looked bad. He wasn't dead, and I dropped the poison fire skill instantly so he wouldn't die, but he looked like a melted action figure. I winced at the twisted rock armor that had warped onto his very badly burned flesh.

    The twins we staring in horror, and at my glance immediately dropped to their knees, putting their hands behind their heads. I felt kind of bad. I could hear the booms of Abel dealing with the other Master Candidate but I didn't have the spare attention for it as I sprinted over to where out opponent was. Kneeling down, I started peeling off the rock as quickly as possible.

    There was...a lot of skin and muscle that came up with it, but I used scan heal again and started dumping in healing bursts. I couldn't do more than five apparently, because his body just wouldn't accept more life energy at that point, but that seemed to be enough.

    It took me a few minutes, but I got all the rock off him and his skin had healed enough to cover all the exposed muscle. Knowing he was going to live I exhaled in relief, and found a hand on my shoulder. I looked up to see the others around us. Forn was beaten pretty badly but he looked more focused on his teammate. I couldn't imagine what this must look like to them, but I was just glad I hadn't accidentally killed someone. Still...I guess this was a win. Gods I hoped the prize was worth all this.
  29. chrnno

    chrnno Time Traveller

    Jun 15, 2013
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    Wow oops on the cane exploding and releasing everything. No wonder the other two immediately surrendered, at least he managed to heal the guy enough.
    Malcolm Tent likes this.
  30. Threadmarks: chapter 358
    Malcolm Tent

    Malcolm Tent Experienced.

    Oct 16, 2020
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    The first thing the other team did was check on Raka. Which was completely reasonable given how terrible that had to have been. "I am so sorry." I said quickly. "I don't know what the hell happened there. I wanted to win but I wouldn't have done...THAT. Hell, I couldn't have done that. I have no idea how or why that even happened."

    Abel sighed. "Not your fault. I was going to tell you to get a new weapon, but I didn't expect it to be an issue. Figured you'd make the jump after rank up. Wear and tear are inevitable, but it was the combination of that cane having a MASSIVE amount of power stockpiled and slamming it into a higher ranking artifact. It was a freak accident." He looked down at Raka. "You ok?"

    The big man had woken up and one of the twins was helping him sit up. He nodded. "I'm fine. That was...truly unpleasant. But it was clear it was unintentional and the healing you gave me is helping immensely. I'm not exactly in perfect shape now, but I'm on the mend."

    Forn looked relieved. "Good. And don't feel too bad about it. That was pretty brutal. But we wouldn't have won anyway." He nodded to Abel. "Their boy over there is a straight up monster. I didn't even know planets this low level could HAVE Master Candidates."

    Helping Raka up, he waved us over to their waiting area, and we followed them in. "So." Callie said as we trailed behind them, giving Raka some time to walk a bit slower. "I'm guessing the lot of you got attacked before this round same as we did? Not that I know which faction you're with, but it seems pretty universal."

    I missed the days when I could just assume we were dealing with the Unity or WCP. This whole tournament had become a mess of epic proportions.

    Raka nodded. "We were. As for our interests...well that isn't a secret anymore I suppose. We were representing the Black Sorrow Cult. They contacted several rim factions about contracts to sign over the spots if they won. They might be lunatics, but they're well funded lunatics."

    I grimaced. "They can afford that? Blowing a sizable bribe on presumably dozens of teams to stack the deck just in the event one of them wins?" I really didn't like when my enemies showed themselves to be competent. Competent and wealthy seemed like an even worse combo. They were a massive faction, but their border outpost should have been the main force behind this push. I wouldn't have expected them to have that much cash to throw around.

    The big man snorted. "You don't get the stakes here. These resources are rare on a universal scale. Regional power games aren't the only thing at play. The Moonglow Dew will be funneled to their main heirs, and will be a huge benefit during the coming years. The major factions are constantly at odds, anything that will put them ahead for a generation is a new benefit. This tournament could very well be the deciding factor for the lineup of the next Unlucky Thirteen."

    I hadn't considered that. It made a lot of sense though. The Wishmaster was an automatic pass to the Unlucky Thirteen, but knowing what I knew about cultivation I imagined those other slots were fiercely fought over. Universal infamy would skyrocket the cultivation of anyone on that list.

    "Well damn." Said Callie with a grimace. "That makes this a bit wider scale than expected. How is this planet not crawling with ringers then?"

    "Because it's one of many." I said slowly. "This is the smallest most backwater system in the cluster. With that many points of attack it's no wonder most of the larger forces didn't bother with us. They went for the bigger systems where they would be able to exert more pressure."

    Internal system politics were one thing, but there was no way that the Black Sorrow Cult could have sent, say, a B-ranker like Zeke, to put direct pressure on the proceedings. The stratification of power was an important factor of how the universe ran. Pushing and bending rules was one thing, but the only real reason Zeke was able to move into his spot in Callus was the unique neutral reputation of the WCP.

    Callie sighed. "This is just going to get worse. This round is only going to have three hundred teams, which means we're at the point where we'll be fighting every day. The closer we get to the endgame, the more frantic the other factions will get. We'll definitely see some kind of attack tonight."

    "We have Rime and Frostbite already involved though." I pointed out. "Can we arrange for them to meet us? They haven't attacked yet, so clearly they have some kind of limit on what they'll do." I didn't relish the thought of trying to fight another hit squad with my head thumping like a bass drum.

    To my surprise, Raka cut in. "They can't ambush you again. Not so soon. Rajak is a major metropolis with a huge Unity presence. They would have needed to make arrangements for the attack on us the other day. People would have needed to be bribed to ignore signs and leave gaps in security. There's no way anyone can pull something like that off again a few days later. There will be too many eyes on it."

    Callie nodded thoughtfully. "That's...probably true. But it means we're going to have to deal with an attack later tonight or tomorrow morning. Probably tonight." She stared at him curiously. "Considering we know who the last faction to move the next round of attacks might very well be from the Black Sorrow Cult themselves. Wouldn't tipping us off probably be a violation of the terms of your contract? Why help us?"

    He shrugged. "Our contract only lasted until we got booted. Plus I'm not a fan of the lunatics. We took their money because it was beneficial, that doesn't mean we're loyal to them." We talked for a bit longer before they all said goodbye and left, getting their scan ring numbers to keep in contact.

    After we headed outside we met up with Rime, and filled her in on what might be coming down the pipe. She grimaced at the news. "An assassination attempt? Are we going to be seeing them attack the house tonight? We might want to invite your E-rank friends over just in case."

    I shook my head, making sure my Stealth Skill was keeping my voice from spreading past our little circle. "No. The house isn't just my place, Zeke lives there. The geas prevents him from helping in most circumstances, but attacking the house involves him directly and opens them up to his direct intervention. They might as well kill themselves and save us the trouble at that point."

    "So the question is." Said Abel in annoyance. "How are they going to hit us? Because it doesn't seem likely they'll ignore us given the Black Sorrow Cult's...contentious relationship with you. If they can't attack at the house or outside the arena then what are their options?"

    "What if they could." Said Callie quietly. We all looked at her, and I saw a contemplative look on her face as she went over options. "What if we let them attack us, lined up a trap and used it to sweep up as many of them as possible. We could potentially take out a bunch of their teams before the next round."

    I made an uncertain sound. "Assuming we could set it up so we had no chance of losing, what's to say they would even attack us directly? Taking out a bunch more mercenaries isn't likely to affect the outcome of the tournament one way or another."

    She shook her head. "No. They'll send their own people. Mercenaries are A, less likely to take the job after we beat the last ones, and B, not going to take this as seriously. Especially after taking out Pietro. This is personal. They'll take the shot if we give it to them, we just need some way to make sure they go down when they do."

    That was easier said than done. Without Zeke, we still had some serious firepower, but there was no way they wouldn't be expecting our E-rankers. They'd have counters in place for them, and assuming the dumb assholes weren't stupid enough to jump me personally we'd have no way to counter if they tried to drown us in bodies.

    Then I got an idea. "What if they couldn't send anyone above G-rank." I said slowly. The others looked at me quizically and I grinned. "Abel, when the guardian enchantment on the labyrinth under the Cavalcade faded, did the place collapse?" I didn't remember if Cicero had mentioned that or not, and honestly even if he had it might have been bullshit, I didn't trust that asshole as far as I could throw the Unity building.

    My mentor looked thoughtful. "It...shouldn't have. But that's a dangerous thing to try. It can't take any F-rankers. Our E-ranked backup can prevent them from entering, but it isn't impossible that a bunch of E-rankers might gang up and collapse the thing to kill us all without worrying about it at all."

    I shook my head. "They can't. Being inside means my health is tied to the labyrinth being whole. That means if they try to collapse it with me inside Zeke will need to step in directly. Even if they wouldn't know that, he'd warn them like he did with the Cultist."

    "That." Said Callie with interest. "Isn't a bad plan at all. We might even be able to talk Raka and the others into leaking the information before they sever ties. The Cult wouldn't even question it. They would need to jump on the chance to get in an attack. We might be able to take out a bunch of teams."

    I had to point out the obvious. "How would that affect the tournament? Would they condense the rounds? Also we need some way to keep them locked up. The teams directly from the Cult will be murderous assholes, but they won't come at us light either. Some of them will probably be the local teams under contract with them. I don't want to kill some faction like the Burning Heaven Abyss."

    "I can help with that." Said Rime. "Attacking outside the matches is a direct violation of tournament policy. In my capacity as a local executive, or at least the representative of one, I can order their arrest. You'd need to knock them out and hold them until the authorities arrived, but it's more than feasible."

    That sounded complicated, but I knew that the Unity could operate in WCP territory unless they were intercepted, and I could make sure that didn't happen. Shadowthorn had come down to save us when we almost got murdered in the underground arena in G-district after all. The labyrinth would keep the big fish off us until the local muscle arrived, and even the cult wouldn't be stupid enough to engage in a full on war. They would need to run or get dragged into a huge conflict.

    Callie nodded to Abel. "Alright. I know you aren't exactly on good terms with him, but give your brother a call and see if he can give us access. You had that thing built in the first place right? So it should be within your rights to use it. Unless you think he'll give you trouble?"

    Our mentor snorted. "He won't if he knows what's good for him. If he does try it I'll lean on him. He's caused enough trouble. He can be a little generous for once." With that settled, we headed home to get in touch with anyone we thought would be able to help both in or out of the Labyrinth. It was nice to be the ones luring someone ELSE into a trap this time.