The smell of smoke dragged Vye out of her sweet dream about growing wings and flying away. It was with that fresh loss that Vye’s eyelids fluttered open.
Wrinkling her nose, she tried to sit upwards and find out what dumb thing Tatiana did this time to light something on fire in the office. Maybe she brought a half-finished piece of metal into the board room and left it on the table. If she had to make one more call to that holier-than-thou carpenter to repair the board room table-
Vye couldn’t sit up. And this made her puzzle. Then she remembered that she had left Erickson Steel behind to finally try to find her own place in the world. Her first step toward seizing the capability to control her own destiny. The wide sky seemed to spread out before her in every direction.
Which was probably why in her dream-
Then a powerful throb of pain from her left hand jerked Vye back to the present and left her wincing. No… I was… in the Lottery. I had the duel against Roland, and then he…
As her eyes grew used to activity after so long resting, the details of the room swam into focus. Her thoughts stumbled to a halt as she finally looked down at the blackened flesh of her left hand. Her fingers twitched outward like the legs of an electrocuted spider. But after some movements, the muscles eased back into their familiar serviceability.
On the one hand, Vye comforted herself that it was only painful, not crippling in any way. As she carefully flexed her fingers, the muscles continued to move smoothly as they always had. Her creation of rituals wouldn’t be encumbered by this injury, which was Vye’s initial fear.
Yet the wizened and burned skin of her hand looked like she had smashed her digits with a well-greased waffle iron. The ambient energy wafted up out of the ritual markings she had made directly onto the surface layer of her hand. The whole reason that Vye needed to spend so much extra time making the paper for the Rituals was exactly due to the danger involved in inscribing them. There were high demands on the paper to prevent some of the energy from escaping.
What Vye did during her rituals was carefully balancing the ambient energies within the paper. Only when they were precisely released with the correct timing would they display their true ability. During that intervening period, the energies had to be completely contained by the paper. Leaks generally led to more leaks, which would see the paper light up like a match.
Or like my fucking hand, Vye thought with a grimace.
Unlike the paper, Vye’s skin hadn’t been reinforced to be a medium for the energies. Skin was incredibly poorly suited to being able to contain the complex interactions of a ritual. So she could only grit her teeth in chagrin as she looked at the wretched state her skin had been reduced to from only a split second of containing those energies.
If she had done anything other than draw out the ritual and then unleash it immediately… the possibilities made Vye shiver. It was likely that the strain of containing it would have spread the strange variance through her own body. As it was, Vye quickly used her right hand to feel around her body.
She was sprawled on a bed with covers twisted around her, which was likely the real reason she hadn’t been able to sit up. It seemed like dream Vye had been highly mobile. The burned skin stopped at the wrist; it seemed like the damage was localized to the ritual she had drawn on the back of her hand.
Because based on the bandages and the fact that Vye felt completely fine other than her hand, it seemed that she had been healing for several hours already. Her Health had returned to full. After the hit Roland put on her, Vye had no delusions about the state she had been reduced to.
Yet her hand remained injured even though the Systems usual healing could have addressed it. And the answer to why seemed to be staring her in the face.
Reject, Vye thought sadly, cradling her left hand in her right and raising it to examine the inflamed red skin at the site of the ritual. The warped remnants of the ritual she had very quickly added on to her hand stood out from the blackened skin like a raised brand. Looking at it now, it was clear that there were many slight flaws in the ritual that had led to energy leaking out before she had unleashed it.
And perhaps due to the leaking, the ‘shield’ that the ritual should have been morphed into something similar but not quite the same. Not just a rejection, but also a firm refusal of any sort of concession. Although it had been transformed by the process, that Reject still remained firmly planted on Vye’s hand, continuing to somehow persist even though she wasn’t feeding it Mana any longer.
Vye carefully moved her hand. It hurts… but it definitely also possesses power. If I figure out what happened here… If I can use it in the future...
There was a sudden jolt in her surroundings, and Vye winced in pain. Finally distracted from her hand, Vye looked around to see that her bed was in a train compartment. Out the nearby window, Vye could see rolling farmlands and soft hills as far as the eye could see, blurring at the edges as the train cruised across the countryside.
There was a soft knock at the door and Vye twisted around to see Naffur Suite, looking quite a bit more like the teenager that he was, smiling at her. He ruffled his own hair as he looked in at her. “Feeling better?”
“...yea.” Vye carefully lowered her marred hand to her side. Even when she moved it just a little, thorns of agony would spread outward from the still buzzing Ritual she had carved onto her hand. But the fact that it hurt so much meant that there was power in it. If Vye could figure that power out… maybe this was the Path she needed to take to find her own independence.
“Good, because there is something we need to talk about, and the sooner the better.” Naffur stepped into the room and peered around as if he was looking for something. Eventually, he frowned, but he turned and focused his gaze back on Vye. “Your performance at the Lottery was exemplary. You managed to disperse a strike from someone who had condensed a Fate and live through it.”
“Barely,” Vye smirked. But even she couldn’t suppress the thrill of excitement at the words. She was definitely correct. If she could learn to freely utilize that power… and perhaps also slightly reduce the pain that resulted from it. Goddamnit, if this continues I’m gonna just cut this thing off.
“Do you know how many things I’ve barely accomplished in my life?” Naffur sighed. “I learned that from Randidly Ghosthound. No one else ever remembers to put barely in front of your successes once they start to pile up. But after taking the blow, you were unconscious. We brought you along with us… but that was a little bit forward. So I want to officially ask you now: would you like to join one of ten finalists to join the Order Ducis? Because otherwise… we will need to let you off at the next stop.”
Yes. More than anything, yes.
But Vye did her best to play it cool while a mental version of herself was frantically resisting the urge to grin like a village idiot and prance about. “Ah…. of course I’m interested in the Order Ducis… I really respect all of the many deeds you’ve accomplished. Definitely done a lot of good stuff… but what do you mean by finalists?”
“Heh, you are much sharper than most people we make the offer to,” Naffur chuckled. “Currently, there are only five official members of the Order Ducis. But Randidly has finally decided to expand our number. We will be hosting a six month long training camp to determine who to actually induct into the order. At the moment… five seems the top limit, should we receive enough applicants who successfully complete the camp.”
“...so there is a fifty percent chance to get in?” Vye’s internal excitement dimmed somewhat. Being a finalist seemed like it would just get her entry into the training camp. From there, she would be forced to prove herself. But based on the Order Ducis’ track record, six months of training with them would definitely see her Skill and Level improve… six months was a little less than the amount of time Vye had taken to get to this point.
After six months of the most intensive training on Earth…
“Ah, actually, finalist is a bit misleading,” Naffur’s smile seemed abruptly guilty. “But you will immediately be taken to the training camp with the distinction of someone we actively recruited. In addition to the finalists, we have about twenty individuals who have… assisted with our other tasks. They’ve earned places in the camp. Finally… we are going to have twenty open slots in the training camp, first come, first served. But we will kick anyone out that doesn’t align with our beliefs or can’t keep up with the training regimen. It was designed for high turnover.”
Naffur scratched his head. “Randidly’s training methods… are not gentle. And the Order Ducis definitely hopes to embody his spirit.”
“Of course, results demand trials to manifest. Without strife, humanity would collapse.”
Vye paused. She had been about to open her mouth and reply to Naffur, but someone else had beat her to it. As one, she and Naffur looked upward toward the source of the voice.
Aldo’s head was popping out of the luggage compartment above where Vye had been resting. Vye’s eyes slowly widened as she looked up at him, as he nonchalantly looked down at the two of them. Clearly, he had been listening into their conversation.
“Ah… Aldo, I had been looking for you... “ Naffur looked blankly up at the other man. “What… are you doing up there?”
“There isn’t any evidence that indicates that Randidly Ghosthound has ever used Manatech trains as a form of transportation.” Aldo lifted his chin and peered around. “As such… I’ve done a lot of thinking about that. Perhaps that is a more important detail than most people think. As someone who investigates the source of Randidly Ghosthound’s power… I’m currently in the middle of an experiment. So if you’ll excuse me…”
Aldo pulled his head back into the luggage compartment like a turtle withdrawing into its shell. The compartment shut itself with a snap.
“... we’ve also asked Aldo to participate.” Naffur said quietly. Then he rubbed his neck, clearly feeling quite awkward. “I… hope you two get along well. We should be arriving at our destination in two hours.”
“Ah… where is the training camp taking place?” Vye asked idly, still staring up toward Aldo’s small hideaway.
Naffur smiled. “Erickson Steel Headquarters.”
Vye’s mouth eye twitched. “I’m… sorry?”