It had been a little under two weeks since the Newbie Barrier had fallen around Donnyton, and it had been an extremely busy time for Sam. Much to Sam’s disgust, Daniel was pushing very strongly for an increase in the differentiation between ranks. So Sam had received the task of creating a new ranking system for the village.
Outwardly grumbling, but inwardly rather smug that he had another chance to put off all of the other busywork that Daniel demanded and just experiment with Bone Shaping, Sam assented.
This new push for a more complication of the ranking system stemmed directly from some of the other more pressing activity in the recent weeks; the consolidation of the squad system and the preparations for the incoming tribulation.
The former was going quite smoothly; By and large, all Classer’s were separated into groups of 10, 9 squad members and a leader. There were a few exceptions to the numbers, based on need and special interest, but by and large this had held to. Thus far, they were in the mid 20s in solidified squads, while there was a pool of regular members and “officer track” people who were randomly grouped together and made to play war games under the watchful eye of Dozer, Decklan, and Donny.
If a squad seemed to gel, they would become an official unit, and receive their call sign, and their current number. The call sign would never change, but their number could; it was based the the ranking of their perceived strength, so that could go up or down depending on the situation.
Regina had commented that while currently effective, the squad system was only a short term solution. As the number of people in the village increased, they would likely need to have experience fighting as a larger unit. Better to start looking for another tier, a Company of men, and train someone to manage that many men. She continued to point out that the great flaw of the current system is often times, the strongest or second strongest person in the squad is the squad leader, and at the front lines of fighting constantly. This allows for very little tactical deviation once the fighting starts. There is just no way for a person fighting to have the vision to spot the enemies weaknesses, and exploit them.
Sam thought she had a point, but Dozer and Donny seemed nonplussed by her words. Sam almost laughed aloud at their expressions. Sure, they were strong, but they just seemed so young sometimes.
Not that he could blame them for their confusion. If things stayed as they have been, they wouldn’t need a Company. The fall of the Newbie Barrier did indeed mean that more monsters spawned in the area, and stronger ones, occasionally double as strong, but after a few close scrapes, they had hammered out a rough patrol schedule, and dealt with most of the incursions.
Other than that, very little had really changed. Raid Bosses were a concern, but Glendel’s new abilities had been invaluable at finding and identifying them, rendering them pretty harmless. Other than that, there just wasn’t a unifying foe anymore, like the monster horde had been, to keep them on their toes, and make them work hard to survive.
There was of course, the looming Tribulation, but up until now, no one had seen it.
That, Sam reflected, was having a strange psychological effect on Donnyton.
They were constantly, training, grinding themselves to a point, ready for the oncoming, vicious sphinx. Vigilant patrols scoured the area. Any non domesticated monsters were killed seemingly seconds after they spawned. All in all, Donnyton had become a very safe and orderly place.
Still, everyone was waiting for the hammer blow to fall.
But Sam shook his head, focusing on his current task. In order to provide at least a little differentiation, he was making several types of pendants, created through his Bone Shaping. For the general groups, that weren’t part of the squads, they were given a bone pendant in the symbol of their use. These were for the general corps that didn’t yet make it into a squad
A weird flame shaped bone for the mages. A cross for the Healers. An axe for Dozer’s squad, a shield for Donny’s, a curved dagger for Decklan’s. This group of pendants was annoying to make, due to their group size. Sam was forced to spend most his mana pool and use mana potions to continue on with the project.
Bone shaping, by itself was simple. Sam used his hands, infused with mana, to rub the bones. It was a gradual process, but some of the mana would sink into the surface of the bone, and Sam would still maintain a certain measure of control over it.
After a sufficient amount of mana was rubbed into the bone, he pressed, driving the mana up and forward, into the shape he wanted. The bone slowly twisted and stretched, moving to fill that shape.
Not enough mana, and the skill failed, and he was left with a strange, twisted bone. Too much mana, and the bone exploded. Press too hard, and the bone exploded. Press too soft, and nothing happened for several seconds, and then the bone dissolved into powder as the mana diffused.
Sam had practiced obsessively these past few weeks, slowly reducing the percentage of bones that he wasted through his skill.
Although it wasn’t outwardly obvious, Sam was a prideful man. Early on, when the village had been established, his skill with an axe and construction had given him what he thought was a pretty significant head start in terms of paths, which translated into higher stats.
It was nice, in a way, protecting the girls and even that asshat Kal, wielding his axes with wild abandon, running solely on the thrill of adrenaline while monsters rushed forward...
But as the Classers leveled, that stat advantage disappeared. And then Vivian, Ellaine, and Kal left, wanting to flee to “civilization.” All he had left was Lyra, but of course by that point she no longer needed his protection; Sam couldn’t fathom the extent and methods of her skills, but he couldn’t deny the results she had achieved.
In fact, she had been visiting The Ghosthound these past weeks, giving him lessons in the control of mana…
Sam chuckled despite himself, his smile grim. Was even he beginning to just call Randidly the Ghosthound…? It was a sobering thought. Although Randidly was clearly the most powerful and versatile person in the village…
He bore so much weight on his shoulders…
Sighing, Sam turned back to his final project for the new stratification system. For the squads, he made the numbers 50-11, simple, plain numbers of bone, which would be worn by the squad leader. For the final 10, however, he used larger pieces of bone, which would be worn on the squad leaders back. These took a few tries, but make them he did, resplendent as graceful bones, displayed in roman numerals.
X, IX, VIII, VII, VI, V, IV, III, II, and finally I.
These would be the pride of Donnyton, Sam hoped. The honor that all the Classers strived for.
And the non-Classers, Sam supposed. There were several competing, although there was sometimes some grumbling when they were included on your team. It did raise their skills more quickly, which was helpful. It also was becoming increasingly obvious that having a NCC gave squads certain advantages.
Often they knew most basic combat skills, and could fill multiple roles in combat. Healer, Mage, Tank.
Unfortunately, this versatility came at the cost of low health, mana, and stamina pools; they usually rather quickly had to rely on potions.
For the I, the top ranked squad, Sam reverently used a bone from the Tribulation Randidly had killed. They were darker than normal bones, a grey blue, almost resembling metal. This, after all, was the pinnacle. It should be worth striding for.
Then Sam examined the piece of equipment he had made, then chuckled.
Livery of the First Squad Lvl 29: A sigil made for the best. Wearer receives +50 Health, Mana, and Stamina. Those under the command of the Wearer receive +10 Health, Mana, and Stamina.
Sam nodded, pleased with himself. The others had granted small amounts of health or stamina, but this was a much more significant amount. There were, after all, perks to being on top.
They had already arranged a system of challenges, so the lower squads could fight to gain rank, but it hadn’t been used overmuch thus far. Now, the pendant wearers would try to obtain a top 10 ranking, for the extra bonuses the larger pieces granted. And those in the top 10…
Would aim for the top.
Wistfully, Sam wondered how he would fare, should he join the pool to be placed into a squad. Although he felt he was slightly inadequate in comparison to the top tier, he thought that he matched up pretty well in comparison to most people’s physical specs. He was nearing 20 in almost everything. Perhaps not super impressive, but still…
A throat clear caught Sam’s attention, and he looked up. Daniel stood there, fidgeting slightly.
Sam chuckled. “How long were you waiting?”
“Almost five minutes,” Daniel replied, probably only half joking. Although with Daniel’s patience, it would no doubt get spent after even that short amount of time… and judging by the way he was bouncing from foot to foot…
“Well?” Sam asked, folding his arms.
“...The first stage of the Class Trials happened today,” Daniel gushed, his eyes bright. “I have the results.”
The Class Trials, as Daniel called them, were his brainchild, were he would take volunteers and oversee their training, promising them support in exchange for information about their paths and stats, and having control over when they chose a class. He had taken in 20 individuals for it, 17 men and 3 women, and had been working them to the bone since the Newbie Barrier had fallen.
Based on the original plan, one was long term, while the other was short, and he had likely made the short term group take a class.
Before Sam could say anything else, Daniel handed him a clipboard. Upon closer examination, it was covered in stats, lists of skills, physical descriptions and measurements, paths, and general psychological assessments. Unfortunately, most it was marred with underlines, circles, and seeming random lines drawn around between strange bits of information.
Sam gave Daniel a level look.
Shaking his head, Daniel said with an annoyed expression. “Okay, okay, the short version, right? The total stats, rather than the distribution, made a difference in quality of the classes received. Due to some variables I haven’t been able to identity, some individuals level skills faster generally, while others displayed particular affinity toward a certain skill, and leveled only that very rapidly. It was only two weeks, but I was surprised that the difference between the lowest individual and the highest was approaching 20 stat points-”
“Focus.” Sam growled, rapping his knuckles against the wood of the worktable.
Blinking, Daniel opened his mouth, then closed it was a scowl. With an exaggerated sigh, he said, “Alright fine. As I stated, total stat amounts made a difference in terms of quality, but stat distribution doesn’t seem to affect class type. A person with high intelligence could still become a berserker. Class type stems from the Skills you have leveled. Heavy Blow leads to warrior, Herculean Strength to defender, Mana Bolt to mage, Healing Palm to acolyte.”
“Perhaps unfortunately,” Daniel continued. “The one individual who was best at leveling probably got the worst class out of everyone; Jack of All Trades. The stat gains are fine, but the skills he’s gotten have been lackluster so far. Just general proficiencies. Since he was good at everything, I just had him level everything he could. Spells, fighting skills, cleaning and cooking, construction, potion making, etc. But because he had everything, he had no dominant skills that lead to his class. As such, I’ve agreed to take him on as an assistant. It seems that in terms of classes, what matters is the really is the flavor of the skills.”
“An assistant will be useful for you,” Sam said half heartedly, mulling over the news. The stat total increasing the quality was good, but the general skills making classes more difficult was not great news to hear. After all, all of his production skills were spread out quite a lot. In addition, he had a fair amount of combat related moves. If he took a class now, what would he get…?
“Not really,” Daniel’s said with a smug grin on his face. “Ever since my class granted me the Memorize skill- Wait, you were being sarcastic, weren’t you? Well I’ll be leaving then. No need to stay around and be mocked.”
Daniel affronted face as he turned and stalked away was so comical that Sam had to laugh. They were embracing this world quickly, Sam thought. Perhaps too quickly. Becoming too used to their positions of power. Hopefully this strange pseudo peace didn’t last too long…
“Oh, one more thing.” Daniel said, still hurrying away. “I’ll leave the pleasure of speaking with the Ghosthound about this piece of news to you. Good luck.”
Now it was Sam’s turn to scowl. Randidly was never in a good mood these days. He was taking the tribulation absence harder than anyone else. Sam knew that he wanted to go out and hunt it down, but didn’t know where to start. So Randidly could only wait. All the while, his gaze turned towards the south.
In one of their evening strolls through the area, Regina had confided in Sam that the strange, wistful gaze had started when she mentioned Rawlands. Perhaps there was a connection there, the past of the man who would become The Ghosthound, hidden there. Some connection or relationship that could draw him, even now.
What exacerbated that wistful mood was that apparently the mana lessons with Lyra weren’t… going well…
Sam walked passed several farmers who were tending their fields, their eyes studiously on the ground, the raised voices already audible.
“What do you mean you just do it?” Randidly growled.
“I just do it, so why can’t you? What do you want me to say!” Lyra answered, and Sam could picture her furious face, her mouth pressed into a thin line. Sam hurried closer.
“Some instruction would be a welcome change of pace.”
“Okay, I have a skill that lets me see mana. After that I just reached out and played with it, shaping. I figured you could skip the seeing step and just control it, but I didn’t realize you had a giant dick for a brain.”
“I can feel it’s there, sure. But I haven’t been able to touch it! I just want you to tell me how to touch it!”
“If you can feel it, aren’t you touching it already? Just do it, want it, feel it! What the fuck are you waiting for?!”
The farmers were beginning to blush. Sam arrived at the small gate that surrounded Randidly’s house, granting him some privacy, and let himself in, making as much noise as possible. He was met with two hostile glares.
Luckily, or unluckily, those glares quickly switched and settled on each other.
Lyra tapped her foot on the ground lightly. “This is where the teacher has to spank the naughty student, right? Good thing I’m into role play.”
“Try it.” Randidly’s voice dropped dangerously, and suddenly Sam felt like he wasn’t actually very impressive physically. If it came to blows between them…
“How could you even stop it? YOU CAN’T EVEN SEE MANA. That’s the whole reason this is so annoying! Just-”
“You know what’s annoying? Your attitude. How am I supposed to just ‘do it’? If you just behaved like a reasonable person, just once-”
“Would you even listen? Aren’t you too busy treating me like a little girl to take me seriously? Oh there’s Lyra again, just joking around, she’s so snarky and unapproachable, I’d rather pat her on the head and then leave her alone so she just-”
But then Lyra stopped speaking, and spun on her heel and walked towards one of the walls. With a wave of her hand, she conjured a bear made of mana, that smashed its paws against the wall and ripped a hole through it like it was made of gauze. Lyra calmly stepped over the broken wall without altering her gait, and proceeded away, passed the area now completely vacated of farmers.
Inwardly, Sam sighed. He hadn’t known Lyra well before the system arrived, but he had spent a good amount of time with her since then, and Randidly too.
Lyra was always raised to be an actress, and the best actress. She grew up under constant pressure and observation. She felt seen constantly, and judged, and only a stubborn disposition and her natural talent and intellect had helped her through it.
Now, facing Randidly, a person who she was obviously attracted to, she was infuriated that he wasn’t behaving how she expected, by viewing her as a woman. To him, she was just a teenager. 17 might be old enough for some people, but to a 23 year old Randidly, that 6 year age difference was more than enough to balk at.
Honestly, Sam respected that about him. And he had some fatherly instincts towards Lyra still, so he wanted her to end up with someone her own age. But even Sam couldn’t deny that their interpersonal issues were beginning to color their other interactions.
These lessons, for instance, would likely go much more smoothly if one wasn’t clearly broadcasting her sexual frustrations, and the other dismissing her outright.
“So,” Randidly said, turning his furious gaze to Sam. “What did you come here for?”