“No,” I said. “Absolutely not.”
Captain Smith crossed his arms, looking to Pat for backup, but the pristinely dressed woman merely shrugged, as if to remind the Captain that this was his decision and she wasn’t getting involved. The Captain’s frown deepened, and, for a moment, I could feel the thin strands of energy that connected him to almost everyone on the Yorktown begin to twirl.
I’d made myself immune, but even I could feel the influx of emotion and power at such close range. Pat’s face remained stony, as she continued to stare down the Captain who was subconsciously using the power of this connection to manipulate his lieutenant into agreeing with him.
“Fine,” Captain Smith sighed, as the glowing connection once more thinned and dulled. “I’ve heard your objections, but it’s still my call to make. I know you have the power to usurp me, hell I’d welcome it, but unless you’re willing to stick around and keep these people safe it’s up to me to make the hard decisions.”
“Captain,” I said, “I have no objection to your command. I’ve supported you from day one, but I’m the only one here that’s been through this procedure and I’m telling you that we can’t do it to a child.”
“The archmage,” Captain Smith nodded towards the eight-foot-tall Peacekeeper whose lithe form was lazily stretched over an antique couch, “has already assured me that the process is reversible and has no long-term effects. Entire cultures use it on children. In fact, the only reason we haven’t considered it for everyone under sixteen is the immediate threat, and, frankly, resources. Some powers are just too strong for children to handle.”
My head flailed as I looked at Telvy and then Pat for support. Pat simply looked away, the tightening of her lip told me she agreed with me, but she wouldn’t voice her opinions, at least not publicly. The archmage never looked up from her preening. She held a small mirror, obviously built for humans, pinned between two claws on her oversized hand. She lightly dusted the golden scales that lined her jaw and spotted her cheeks using a brush made from wood and fine hairs.
“If anyone,” Telvy announced, slamming closed the clamshell mirror, “had bothered to ask me we could have avoided this entire discussion.”
“What do you …” the Captain and I said at the same time.
“You can’t do the surgery?” Pat asked, almost hopefully.
“Oh, not that my dear.” Telvy stood, her head nearly brushing against the roof of the Captain's small cabin. Her presence seemed to fill the entire room. “I could [Censor] her with barely a thought. What I mean is that doing so won’t limit her powers the way you desire.”
“That ...” I said, before Pat held up her hand to interrupt me.
“You’re saying these powers don’t come from a [Class] or [Skill] … they’re what, natural?”
“I wouldn’t go that far … but yes, the girl’s abilities certainly predate the Hegemony’s intervention in this world. I suspect,” the archmage paused to look towards me before continuing. “Well, there is more to this world than I’d first imagined.”
“No,” I said.
I immediately knew it was true.
The training my father had provided me, even if incomplete, had given me powerful abilities that had nothing do with the system. My father had once belonged to an entire group — as had Liv— with supernatural powers whose origins had gone back hundreds of years. Wasn’t it possible that other groups and powers had existed? Were they connected?
“What are our options then?” said Captain Smith.
“One of your people has already placed her in a healing trance,” Telvy said. “Your nurse’s work was … adequate. I suspect the child will need several days before she awakens. In the meantime … what do you normally do when one of your offspring gets unruly? I personally believe in spanking.”
Before anyone could react, the archmage was once again staring into her mirror as she ducked through an almost comically undersized door. I held my laughter till she was gone but quickly covered my mouth as both Pat and Captain Smith shot daggers at me with their eyes.
“Hrmm,” I said, clearing my throat. “Sorry, bit of a cough.”
“So, who do we put in charge of the child?” The captain said, ignoring my interruption.
“No idea, not my problem. I’ve got to get …”
“Tiller’s uncle,” Pat said. “He takes care of a young girl, about the same age?”
“Yeah,” I said. “Pastor Belk looks after Tiller’s little sister, Trish. They might be about the same age, I’m terrible at kid’s ages, but you can’t seriously be thinking about putting them together?”
“No,” Pat shook her head, interrupting whatever the Captain was going to say. “But … it can’t hurt to have the Pastor talk with her, can it? He’s as close to a therapist as we’ve got, and he’s better with kids than any of us.”
“I’m sure he’ll do it,” I interjected. “It’s what … Wednesday?”
“Monday,” Pat frowned.
“How do you even keep track anymore? Look, doesn’t matter. This time of day he’ll be in his “church.” He converted it from the gift shop on the second level. Tiller might be there, too.”
“Good,” the captain said, “can you …”
“No can do, Captain,” I said, already halfway through the door. “I made a promise, and I’ll get there way faster than the half-trained rescue team you sent out.”
I heard objections call out behind me, but I blocked them out through sheer, willful ignorance. I was glad I wasn’t the guy in charge, some problems just weren’t mine. This was one of those.
It didn’t take long for me to catch up with the rescue party. I sent them back to secure the area under the Yorktown with orders to make sure the net stayed deployed. I didn’t need exhausted, possibly injured men and women, waiting the roughly thirty minutes it took to get the thing entirely unrolled, especially if we were being followed.
The rescue party hadn’t seemed too distraught by the dismissal, and it was obvious I was the faster option. I couldn’t shake that the feeling that I was taking on too much responsibility, though. Should I be protecting them, or focusing on bigger issues?
My sight turned to the west, where an intense pillar of purple light called to me like a moth to fire. Liv was there. I could feel it. I’d have my revenge, but I could never get back what she’d taken from me. The thought brought me back to images of the tiny child I’d just left. She hadn’t moved the entire time I had carried her, even her breathing had been barely detectable. I had done that to her. Not Liv. Me.
I tried to focus on the task at hand, but my emotions were running wild. What else had been hidden from me? Had there been an entire world of magic, monsters, and gods — even before the system had taken over? I was part of that world, and yet I had been left ignorant of everything in it.
If I had known, could I? Would Liv have …
I pushed the thoughts down by focusing on something else. My training over the last few days had hit a wall, but the recent battle against the wasps had yielded impressive results for such a short battle. Had that really been one small girl? Even without levels she’d been a match for a highly trained, and leveled, group of scouts.
Menu, I thought, before quickly scrolling through options and opening my “status screen.”
A translucent screen appeared roughly three feet in front of my face, though it would only be visible to me. I wasn’t sure if it was purely a purely mental construct or projected onto my eyes — and no one had been able to answer my questions. The screen displayed all my stats and skills, in neat, orderly rows as if I was a machine whose output could be perfectly quantified.
Name: Augustus Finn
Current Class: Hierophant
Stamina (r/ per second): 43/43 (0.72)
Mana (r/ per minute): 109/109 (3.633)
Phys. Resist: 7
Mag. Resist: 6
Men. Resist: 5
Below the list of my stats were rows of [Class Features], [Skills], [Spells] and [Feats]. Spells and skills were activated abilities with preset outcomes and costs, with spells generally requiring mana to activate and skills burning through stamina. [Class Features] were an interesting mix of activated and passive abilities that made up the core of each [Class]. [Feats] were almost always passive but would often grant new powers or amplify existing ones.
Almost every one of these abilities could be made more powerful through use. Training worked, especially at low levels, but battle was the quickest and most consistent way of “leveling” skills. My battle with the wasp-child had been no exception.
[Staff Defense] was still sitting at level nine, but I could feel that it was just a tick away from hitting its tenth, and final, level. Once a [Skill] was fully leveled most would then reset in level and change to a different skill, but the results were not always predictable. [Staff Defense] was already a key part of my fighting style, I couldn’t wait to see what improvements it might gain.
Moving on, I found that [Eldritch Mimicry] and [Lightning Arc] had each leveled once. This would make the abilities slightly more powerful and efficient, but the real prize was the 1 [Feat Point], or FP, that each increase gave me. The combined 2 points were small, but just enough to purchase the latest feat I had been working towards.
I scanned through the available options:
Novice (0/4), Warrior (0/3), Acrobat (0/3), Inspiration II (0/50), Swordsman (0/4), Sniper (0/4), Shadowmancy (48/50), Circle Mage (0/25), Papal Wisdom (0/50), Corruption (10/???), Avatar of Madness (0/100)
I eagerly spent the two points and a glowing, text-filled box filled my view.
You have gained new a feat(s) -
Shadowmancy (0/5) Ⓛ - Where others seek to light the darkness, you embrace it. Your mastery of illusion and forbidden powers has given you access to the planes of Umbra. Any illusion spell you cast is formed from the tangible embodiment of darkness, making it partially real and capable of interacting with the world around it. Each illusion created this way is 5% “real” plus 3% per level of this feat. This effect similarly strengthens any [Darkness] or [Shadow] spell.
The shadowmancer can no longer use [Photomancy] and any light-based illusion magics are permanently altered.
This … was welcome. A five percent increase in anything was powerful but Shadowmancy directly affected two of my most used abilities, [Eldritch Mimicry] and [Shadow Doppelganger]. My doppelgangers were already partially real versions of myself, but this would increase the durability and strength of these shadowy clones.
Now, I just had to find an excuse to use them. Perhaps Tiller and Catayla would be up for a bit of training when I got back? If they could keep their hands off each other. They were my two best friends, and I didn’t like to admit my own prejudice, but I found the human-alien pairing slightly unsettling.
I pushed them from my mind, as I continued to imagine uses for my new power. I even experimented by creating a few doppelgangers to run side-by-side with me, until I drew closer to where I had left Worthy, Bridgette and the other members of their scouting party. I slowed before the clearing came into sight and moved forward carefully. I didn’t want to be caught off guard again.
I circled to the south and stepped into the clearing from a line of boulders that would cover my approach till the last moment. I was surprised to find that not only had the frame of the jeep been repaired but someone had managed to get it running. Worthy and another man were staring at the dented vehicle proudly, but their expressions changed as the pitch of the engine grew higher. This was quickly followed by a clanging sound as the front of the jeep began to shake. Almost immediately, the engine died and the sounds developed into a high pitch whirl. Steam surrounded the hood, and the smell of burning oil filled the air.
“Dammit,” Worthy yelled, “I thought you had it that time, Mack.”
The mustached man next to Worthy just shrugged and said, “Even my [Skills] have limits, we’re lucky we even got this much.”
“I was just hoping to see the expression on that dumb son of …”
Bridgette cleared her throat before Worthy continued, much to my disappointment. I was looking forward to the man’s embarrassment when he realized I was right behind him.
“Alright,” I spread my arms out wide, “who called for a tow?”