In the face of Vye’s taunting, Roland didn’t back down. He spat out a thick glob of blood and phlegm that was thick enough that it didn’t spatter very far when it hit the ground. For several seconds, Vye studied it, before looking back to his red face. Then Roland released an angry breath through his nose, producing a hissing noise reminiscent of a kettle about to boil.
A strange golden energy began to gather around Roland’s eyes. Sparks zipped across his brow, quickly growing in frequency. Within a few seconds, a crust of crystal began to form over his eyes, swiftly becoming a shallow covering over his eye sockets. Vye’s confident smile completely disappeared.
He has a Fate? That means he’s over Level 50… Why the fuck is he picking on ME?!? Vye’s hands flexed. Some part of Vye regretted attacking him so aggressively, but another part of her stubbornly dug in her heels with this new bit of information. Roland was asking for it, so she gave it to him. No matter what Level he is, he doesn’t have free reign to ignore the rules of basic human decency.
But based on the Fate… it’s one of the high-quality ones… Although there was a palpable energy surrounding him, Roland’s fate just became a golden crystal covering his eyes. And from the way that his head was still pointed toward her, it didn’t seem like the crystal would block his vision at all.
Vye’s eyes flickered from Roland to Naffur. And to get those sorts of Fates, you need to visit with the Order Ducis or Donnyton…
As more and more people had reached Level 50, there was an explosion of knowledge that was spread around regarding the Fate that you condensed as you passed through that threshold. At first, most of the information was nothing but rumors, but recently the Order Ducis had led a large crusade to spread out accurate information about the process.
Because, as the original rumors ominously warned of, if you messed up condensing a Fate you could die. This the Order Ducis confirmed. There was a real danger to reaching Level 50.
However, Donnyton possessed a concentration aide that allowed individuals to condense a Fate with a fraction of the trouble. For a small fee, it was open to anyone to use. Plus, the usually erratic Fate would focus its crystal manifestation in a much more restricted area if you utilized Donnyton’s service. Whereas there were urban legends about a Fate immobilizing a whole leg, Donnyton’s aide allowed these crystals to be smaller and easier to handle.
A high-quality Fate had the added bonus that it would be so small it was practically invisible when it was not in use. It was only when you summoned its energies that it would grow to form its disruptive form.
The Order Ducis also possessed this capability, although Vye was less clear on the means they used to achieve it. But then, most of the activities the Order Ducis involved itself in were rather mysterious.
A lot of people might have ended up deciding Fates were not worth it, had the Order Ducis not made one fact abundantly clear: condensing a Fate increased your growth rate. Both in Stats gained per Level and the rate at which you gained Skill Levels related to your Fate, obtaining a Fate gave individuals an edge.
Drawn by these tantalizing benefits, most high-Level individuals had recently pushed past their fear and began condensing Fates. Immediately, their boosted strength with which they were endowed proved that the decision to listen to the Order Ducis had been a prudent one.
As for Vye fighting against someone with a condensed Fate… The difference between them wasn’t just at least thirteen Levels. It was also between Vye, who’s eclectic gathering of Skills had no real focus, and this man who was talented enough to host the lottery. And even so-
Randidly Ghosthound would do it.
At her instinctual thought, Vye wanted to tear her hair out in frustration. Who was she trying to kid, aspiring to be Randidly Ghosthound?
But before she could berate herself for unrealistic comparisons, Roland bared his teeth at her. His words were waspish and spat out like another thick glob of phlegm. “Do forgive me for underestimating you, Miss Vye. Worry not; the rest of the challenge will be a great deal more difficult, so your talents can be made abundantly clear.”
Remembering Randidly’s rather mild gaze, Vye did her best to imitate the casual acceptance that she had seen in his emerald eyes. She couldn’t be sure that Roland could see through the crystal covering his eyes, but there was no way in hell she was going to show even a hint of fear to this man. Breathing in, Vye pictured Randidly as she had first seen him, walking barefoot to the Erickson Steel headquarters.
“Do you have any proof of your identity?”
She released a breath with that same unflappable confidence. “Perfect. I’m not here on vacation, after all.”
The lines around Roland’s face tightened. Seemingly pushed beyond the reach of human civility, he raised his hands and blasted two beams of concentrated golden light toward Vye.
Although they moved extraordinarily quickly, Vye reacted in time. Her hands flicked out and four Reject rituals met the beams of light. From the sizzle-crack as the two Skills encountered each other, Vye could tell that her Reject’s were very close to being overpowered. The fact that Roland was able to throw two of those beams at once would make this duel very-
Sneering, Roland spread his arms wide. Eight beams of light blasted outward in curving arcs toward Vye.
The graceful curves meant that the light beams took a little bit of extra time to travel to Vye, but she also had to contend with four times as many vectors as previously. Even though her hands were fast, they weren’t that fast.
Still, Vye blurred into determined motion. This time, she threw out her Rejects in a careful formation. Five of them together combined to become a more powerful version of the same ritual, allowing five of the Rejects to block three of the light beams. So after throwing out fourteen pieces of paper, she had neutralized his attacks.
Barely. The Rejects groaned and cracked. Ambient energy refracted downward, slicing into the ground with a prowling sort of stymied ill-will. Vye’s heart rate gradually began to increase and her palms were slick with sweat. Using that small moment of peace she earned, she hurriedly wiped her writing hand on her shirt so her grip didn’t slip.
Roland slapped his hands together. A beam twice the width as the previous attacks ripped forward toward Vye. After the previous arcing, almost lazy attacks, Vye scrambled to track this one with her eyes.
Goddamnit, why can’t that fucking crystal block his vision?!? Struggling to control her breathing, she raised a single piece of paper: Mirror.
Yellow eyes glowing, Vye carefully watched the beam roaring toward her chest. Even now, she could picture vividly the blood mess it would make of her torso if she didn’t act. From seeing the refractions hitting the ground, Vye knew it cut like a blade. She would be split open like a rotten melon, her organs mashed and reduced to pulp.
This was not an attack meant to test. It was thrown out with deadly intent. Yet even as Vye’s heart rate climbed ever higher, her gaze did not waver.
Right before it was about to strike her, she activated the Mirror ritual. Of her rituals, Mirror was the only one that would require additional Attributes to fuel it. Therefore, it was the one she had the least experience using. With a small thought, Vye activated the ritual. As the beam continued to blast toward her, Vye’s Mana began to drop precipitously.
But immediately in front of Vye, the beam of light disappeared. Thin ripples of energy spread out, like a casual goodbye wave from the domineering attack.
Luckily, the light beams moved quickly. Vye’s Mana held out through the entire attack. She had survived and now held an ace in the hole, should the situation spiral out of control.
Before Roland could realize she was unhurt, Vye threw out another dozen Ignite rituals into the surrounding area. They exploded and careened toward Roland. However, he now understood their power and was able to smoothly side step the frequent energy bombardment. With his attention completely focused, it was child’s play to avoid attacks like this.
Which was more than enough time for Vye to press four Donate rituals against each hand and foot. Power flowed smoothly into her limbs, giving her the capability of someone who put most of their Stat points into Agility and Strength.
Pressing her foot down with all of her strength, Vye cracked the ground and charged toward Roland. Although this completely depleted the one Donate, it was worth it to see Roland’s expression. His eyes widened like a dead fish as he looked up at her blurred figure.
But he wasn’t completely without a response. With a sharp gesture, a brilliant aura surrounded his arm and he cut out with the back of his hand as if it was a butcher’s knife toward Vye’s neck.
Using the energy in her other leg, Vye side stepped smartly. Now, both of the Donates on her feet were consumed. Her neck tingled slightly at the highly charged attack that zipped past her exposed skin. Then she slammed one of her empowered hands into Roland’s chest. The Donates would not last long, so she needed to take advantage of each limb while she could.
A brilliant armor of interlocking plates of light sprung into being around Roland’s chest. Her hand had the weird sensation of punching a trampoline: it was all elastic nylon and strangely unsatisfying. But Vye had another hand that hammered in from a different direction. Under the pressure from the two separate attacks, the plates of light buckled and split.
While his Skill had bought him a few seconds, Roland flicked his hands out and sent out ten beams of light that looped up in the air and shot downward like an artillery shelling on the location where she was standing.
Quick as a flash, Vye felt the grim satisfaction of his bones shuddering from her punch and then pulled backward. She slapped a Donate on her right leg, threw six Ignites around Roland, and then tossed two Rejects up into the air to buy her some time. While the Rejects flared gallantly to life a split second against the rain of light beams, Vye stopped her foot and retreated rapidly backward.
The brilliant light beams cracked and smashed the arena between them, sending up a cloud of thick dust. Vye’s heart pounded in her ears, but she took this chance to relax and steady herself. She looked downward at the papers she had pulled out earlier: there were only two remaining. Although she had some emergency sheets in her interspatial ring, she likely had demonstrated her talent well enough.
When the smoke cleared, she would-
“Luminous Bombardment,” A cruel voice slithered out through the dirt and debris between her and Roland. “Ion Bolt.”
The dust exploded like a grenade designed to maim with molten shrapnel. But the beams of light that pierced through bent and twisted a dozen times a second. It seemed less like Vye was being attacked and more like someone was creating a labyrinth toward her. But the terrible humming in the air revealed just how dangerous those light beams were. The ambient static in the arena made the hair on the back of Vye’s neck stand straight up.
And in the middle of those sharply twisting beams of light there was a silvery sphere sliding silently toward Vye’s chest.
Almost numb, Vye marked her last few papers with Reject and tossed them out to slow the assault. Her initial instinct was to make two more Donates in order to dodge out of the way, but the more she watched those wild bending light beams, the more horror bubbled up in her heart. It was clear that this was a technique designed to surround and hem in mobile targets.
With no other option, Vye also released the Mirror she had made, blasting a thick light beam out toward the silvery Ion Bolt that was coming toward her. While she struck out with the light beam, her few Rejects were overwhelmed in a cascade of twisting beams. Worst of all, the blast of light she unleashed didn’t slow the Ion Bolt in the least.
The attacks are going to land, Vye thought. Her skin seemed to crawl in abject terror. For a split second, she froze. For that second, the attacks surged closer without her responding at all. By the time Vye snapped back to herself, the attacks were so close that she wouldn’t have time to remove the emergency papers from her interspatial ring and then perform the rituals.
Feeling profoundly afraid, Vye looked down at her hands. One empty, one holding a pen. Without paper…
Vye’s gaze sharpened. If I want my freedom… I can’t keep running. These hands… these hands need to be enough.