“Sorry for inviting myself in like this. It's just that I thought it would be nice to rest for a little. I don't know what possessed me to take liberties with you like this,” Petre said once he realized Wren was awake, quickly getting out of the bed.
The dream that seemed so real only a moment ago, began fading and turned abstract. If it wasn't for inner mind, he would likely have completely forgotten it altogether.
I can't just pretend that didn't happen but I don't feel ready for, whatever this is. Still...
Wren choked out a muttered, “Thanks. I... I'm not sure what's going on but...”
Not knowing what to say, Wren half slapped, half patted Petre's shoulder on the way to the bathroom.
Blame it on my fight yesterday. I always feel a little unbalanced when I let my tanks get a little too light. As for fuzzy and unreliable dream crap, tabled for now.
After collecting himself, Wren left the bathroom to wrangle up his trio and return Abyss-side. He waited for a bit to let Sable and Rozchereck finish their light sparring session. It surprised Wren to see them hitting it off so well but wasn't going to get in the way. Group harmony could only be a good thing as far as Wren was concerned.
Wren praised, “Your Tier IV skill integration is coming along nicely, Sable.” Sable's disciplined bow in response didn't manage to hide the man's split second smile.
The surprised Rozchereck said, “He's only Tier IV!?”
Wren replied, “If you spent forty years doing next to nothing but fight, train and teach your skills to others, you could go toe to toe with a rusty skilled person a tier above you too. Not that I'm snubbing you, Roz. Once you've spent a day or two more smoothing out the burrs, Sable would still have a 50/50 shot of killing you if he was serious but you could hold off ten times more force in a direct fight.
“Listen up. I'm going to give you two and Petre an aura sight pill. Once I'm done with my business in this outpost, it will be your objective to fill these seal boxes I'm handing to you now. Only kill and soul trap the ones that you can't see any color other than black on. Even a sliver of color other than red or purple lightning streaks is enough to make them not a target.
“Sable, your targets will come from the ranks of those who follow Chanda and anyone who tries to follow us as stragglers. Roz, you're going to get yours from the outpost after we leave. Petre, you're a floater. If there's too many following, cooperate with Sable or if more stay in the outpost then help Roz. Feel free to use lethal force in self defense but only capture black souls. The lightning streaked auras are priority.”
Looking at Wren dubiously, Petre said, “Isn't this a little extreme?”
Wren said, “Yes, but where do you think we are? Chanda will have subordinates and Roz is likely to pick up more than one or two. Few will likely want to leave the safety of an established outpost but the smart or weak ones will. With our pace slowing to accommodate a growing group of followers, I need a way to provide for them without hindering my own progress.”
Rozchereck piped in, “This may seem counter to my own desires but I need to know. Why do you want to help Chanda and myself gather and maintain a company?”
Wren said solemly, “Because the way things look now, shit went pear shaped a lot faster than I thought it would... If I have to, I will fight the royal house's people themselves to reach my destination... And before you have the chance to ask, those who show loyalty to me will not be stranded without support. If I can't set up a position of power to protect my followers here, then I'll just take them with me.”
Petre looked horrified as he said, “You'd bring an army of demons back to the material plane!?”
Wren didn't hesitate to say, “If they are my people, then yes.” As Petre lapsed into disturbed silence, Wren continued, “I don't care what or who is on my side. As long as they are my people, I will protect them. If they cross my bottom line, they won't be my people anymore.”
Petre said insistently but nearly at a whisper, “This is insane. Their very natures will find a way to betray you.”
Wren said coldly, “Then they only have themselves to blame for volunteering to become the mortar and brick, the fodder that shelters and nourishes the rest.” Wren's voice defrosted several degrees as he finished, “But if they rise above their nature, I will find a path to survival for them... Pete, many among demons are victims of karmic destiny. Reality itself gives them a way. Few can make it but with some help, many more would.”
Petre looked no more at ease but Wren doubted he could convince the man with words alone. That didn't concern Wren in the least. Soon, Wren fully believed he would have something to show Petre that would flip the man's world view upside-down.
If you think I explained all that for your benefit, Pete, you need to take a look at Roz... Don't let me down, you huge ass, ram horned kidney bean. You did it once, you can do it again.
Wren reached for the power to move them Abyss-side when he had a sudden and brutal epiphany.
This is the part where I set in motion a series of events that leads to me and everyone else dying before I reach the one and only goal I had before coming. I didn't have a single hiccup on the way and yet, the first encounter I had at a single outpost has me getting tangled up with local problems, rushing to what... build an army!? No. Just no... The last thing I want to do after building all this momentum is do a left turn but I'm not going through with this.
Wren began combing through his iteration memories and sure enough, he began seeing a pattern emerge. Inherent advantages would let him coast to a certain degree before he encountered a problem, then he would entrench and start drawing all the heat to where he was. Ultimately his actions would lead him to an encounter he couldn't survive, dragging everyone around him to their deaths with him.
Wren thought furiously at BZ, “Help me make sense of this. Thousands of iterations with the same crap floating to the top every time. I make this great plan with some inherent, manageable risk but along the way I start becoming a magnet for major negative events and start sabotaging my original plan till I get myself and others killed. What the hell is going on!?”
BZ responded, “Apologies, Wren. Part of my initial program was to not bring this concern to your attention. Once your soul core was repaired enough to question the initiative instilled into your iterations, I could help you resolve it. In the previous iteration, you removed a negative energy mass which allowed you to find your sister. That is your interpretation of the problem you are now aware of. In theory, that should have been the end of this particular issue without a need to address it. However, you were placed within yet another iteration and so therefore the initiative is present once more. Please make an effort to remove it as soon as possible.
“Such an extreme measure may likely have been utilized by your prime self due to proximity with reality termination. From an emotional stance, it may seem excessively cruel but it is likely important to note that the iterations affected would not have survived either way. In some ways, the sentient manifestation that you possess may be seen as a continuation offered to those who became close to you, a form of survival through spiritual inheritance much like yourself.”
Wren shook himself from his stunned state and turned back towards the three men who were beginning to become curious over the delay.
Wren said, “Change of plans... Roz, no mass recruiting. Petre, I want you glued to my side. Sable, take your pill, immediately begin preparations as soon as we arrive and begin your task as soon as we depart the outpost. Choose your targets by degree of safety to self and group above all else, secondary consideration being whether or not their auras possess red and purple lightning streaks. All other considerations I leave to your expertise. Don't stress yourself and there is no goal nor limitation aside from the amount of seal boxes you have. Don't fall more than six hours behind and you may recruit one subordinate, if any catch your eye... That goes for any of you. One recruit freebie. They can be as worthless as tits on a boar hog as far as I'm concerned.”
Roz smiled wickedly as he said, “If that's the case, I'm saving mine for a concubine.”
Wren sighed and said, “Fine, but they better be a willing recruit. If you abuse this privilege just to obtain a permanent rape victim, I'll personally pluck your barbs and decorate your nuts with them... One more thing. Pete, after I'm done taking care of Chanda's kid, I want you to keep telling me to 'excise the problem' until I tell you I've done it.”
Returning to the room inside Chanda's mini palace, Wren and company found the asura in question, waiting for them.
Chanda said, “Not to seem too eager but I've lost quite a bit of face already. I'd prefer to do this and be gone, now that I am no longer bound here. Might I be given the same privilege of addressing you as Wren directly?”
Wren said, “Yeah sure. Just don't start on the hairless monkey shit again... Well, lead the way. I've made you wait long enough and I have a lot of things to do myself.”
As they walked through the moderately confusing corridors, Sable melted into the shadows and Petre took a position three steps behind, slightly to the right of Wren. With Chanda and Rozchereck in the fore, they entered his afflicted child's room. The sight that greeted them was as confusing and unwelcome to Chanda as it was to Wren.
The room was littered with body parts and a few freshly stunned demons. Apparently, while Chanda had been waiting for Wren to return, a few demons had taken it in their heads to turn on their captain and had came to collect some 'supplies' before fleeing. Unfortunately for them, they decided to have some stress relief after killing the men posted to guard Chanda's kid without realizing that the young 'guy' was a chi feeder. Despite being in an awful state, or maybe because of it, the unconscious and fevered young demon fed heavily off of the two would be rapists. After confirming that his soon to be patient was stable, Wren cleaned up the room with void power and let Chanda take his vengeance against the offenders before seal boxing their souls, throwing the bodies to his void space.
Wasting no time, Wren got to work. It didn't take long to finish off a botched curse, not realizing there was a second underlying the first. Wren also removed a shifting curse that had the young demon's heritage repressed to a nearly human form.
Wren said, “There was the trouble, Chanda. Did you insist on the curse master hiding the succubus traits on top of gender switching?”
Chanda nodded slowly and said, “Samskara's mother was a mortal blooded slave granted to me for meritorious service. She was a disgraced curse master's apprentice and though I treated her as kindly as I was able, she could not accept her lot and worked much mischief before her daughter was born. Samskara changed things for the both of us.
“In life, I was a cultivator who was possessed by my heart demons in pursuit of vengeance and the power to enact it, not a natural born asura. I hid this fact well. When Samskara was born, I saw immediately that her mother's heritage ran the stronger and mine only catalyzed it. I also knew that this would expose my status as a fallen mortal which would endanger us all since my direct superior was a royal line demon with a habit of using any reason to enslave subordinates. Lying about my origins would be enough but having a daughter who was a perfect candidate for being a concubine was a jade ring owned by a poor man.
“I thought of killing my daughter to save us and her such a fate but Shveta convinced me to allow her the chance to twist her curses. Until recently, I thought she had succeeded. Ironically, our deception worked better than expected. My superior believed the curse to be a working of Shveta against me and seeing it's strength, offered her freedom in exchange to serve him as a curse master. As a parting gift, he allowed her to bind me here.”
Must have been holding that in huh? Seriously though, I just asked a simple question.
The following healing proved much more difficult to finish than solving the main issue. Aside from exercising void power, Samskara's body kept eating Wren's energy every time he delved to fix a problem. By the time he finished and the succubus opened her deep blue eyes, Wren had spent enough essence to cover ten times his estimated needed effort. The worst part came after Samskara realized what had happened. Far from being grateful her life was saved, she wanted to murder Wren for taking away her manhood and exposing her true heritage.
After she had calmed down enough to speak coherently, Samskara said, “I would have rather died as an asuran male than live as a succubus.”
Wren said, “All right, Chanda. As long as she-”
Samskara interrupted, “Don't call me she! I am a man!”
Annoyed but attempting understanding, Wren said, “As long as he... agrees to stop trying to attack me, you can let him go.”
Releasing Samskara from a lock hold, Chanda warned his child, “Be respectful. Wren is a medical alchemist on the cusp of mastery. Whatever issue you have taken from his services, it would not be beyond his ability to address but why should he care if the reward is ingratitude.”
Samskara looked Wren over critically, then said, “You will procure the services of a curse master for me and we shall let this slight pass without repercussion, mortal.”
Chanda slapped Samskara on the back of the head hard enough to knock the succubus from his sitting position on the bed to flat on the floor, face down. The slightly glowing eyes and eerie grin on Samskara's face as he picked himself up from the floor, gave Wren the chills. It didn't help that the succubus was provocatively licking the blood from his split lip as he stared down Wren like prey.
Wren let his growing agitation mix with the power of his manifestation. As ethereal chains and scroll silk drifted around him, he stared the succubus right back. When the demon and angel stepped forth from the door and configured themselves into the throne, Wren sat into it regally.
Wren said, “Your father pledged me a hundred years for your sake after I bested him in power. You, in turn, were meant to serve me a year and a day but I have nearly decided I don't want you. Chanda would be greatly upset if I left you to fend for yourself in this outpost when we left but if you do not submit, do not show some value to me, why should I care about you? Beyond that, why should I care what you want?”
As Chanda quietly grumbled over the technicalities of his loss, Samskara measured the man in front of him and reevaluated his position before he said, “Very well, mortal. I'll oath your year and a day.”
Wren sat placidly as he felt four successive, subtle cobwebs of power drape over his form before the void took them in and shredded them, then said, “I see you have a decent foundation in curses. I can provide you some material to improve and grow your understanding. Do you have some martial background as well? If so, what is your style and preferred fighting conditions.”
A tightness of the mouth was the only betrayal of concern Samskara gave before he said, “I do. Lacking my father's raw strength I have adopted a mercenary dual weapon form called Skrim.” Samskara displayed two reverse curved blades that seemed to wrap over and protect the hands then gestured at a set of blade toed knee boots with partitioned plating on the front and short spikes on the heels as he continued, “It's an aggressive but flexible fighting style that places emphasis on speed and dexterity over physical power.”
As Samskara waxed eloquently over the specialized skirmisher fighting style, Wren scanned the equipment, spitting out an improved set before having Petre spar the succubus. Wren watched Petre execute clockwork precision blocks and strikes as
the succubus whirled and struck out with lightning fast slashes and kicks. The adaptive and unpredictable angles of Samskara's style seemed a perfect counterpoint to Petre's absolute five feet impenetrable sphere of defense. If they were of equal proficiency they likely would be each other's most dreaded adversary but within a minute it was easy to see who would be the victor as Petre's movements became more fluid and eased as Samskara was showing more and more strain.
The easy ending didn't come, however, as Samskara started weaving simple but effective curses into his strikes once Petre was lulled into a false sense of confidence. Laboring under the curses, the tables were turned on Petre. More and more shallow scores landed closer and closer to vital areas. Petre's eyes turned to slits as he began grimacing.
Elated, Samskara closed in for a finishing combo only to see the grimace on Petre's face transform into a feral grin. A burst of blinding light from the core of Petre tore the delicate cobwebs of darkness into tattered uselessness and continued to expand, swallowing the young demon. A small scream of agony, quickly silenced, echoed in the room. Fading light revealed a triumphant Petre standing over the unconscious succubus who was faintly smoking with a growing goose egg on his temple.
Wren thanked Petre for his leniency and as he healed the succubus, turned to Chanda and said, “Here's the deal... Samskara is a time bomb. Even if I find a curse master capable of doing what needs to be done, there's no guarantee they wouldn't sell us out. That leaves me personally with two options outside of abandoning Samskara. I have a rare catalyst that would allow Sammy to access a greater degree of the succubus bloodline, for a short period of time, as if she was a pure blood. The Shape of Desire ability would grant the opportunity to become an 'incubus' if Sammy were to focus on the right target. I would do that for a hundred year commitment.
“The second option is a vial of 'absolution'. There's practically no chance of me getting more of that, ever. Even with that, for Sammy to change without the right mindset... Even if Sammy wanted that, I'd want full subordination, no discussion.”
Everyone looked confused except for Rozchereck, who was looking at Wren oddly, so Wren explained, “I won't get into the next to impossible conditions needed to make 'absolution' but the result of taking it depends on the person who took it. It changes a person to become the image of themselves they hold in their heart but also works to clear karmic or spiritual taint. If all Sammy holds inside is the image of masculinity and desires nothing more, not only is it a waste, it would be dangerous because it's designed to break the shackles of spiritual 'damnation'...” Wren turned to lock eyes with Rozchereck and finished, “A demon could even become a celestial if they were earnest and held enough resolve.”
Chanda, who was locked in indecision on what to say, was startled out of thought when Samskara said from the floor, “I would serve for a hundred years for the ability to become a man in body as I am in heart and mind but even if this other substance could grant freedom from the Abyss, why would I trade it's shackles for an even tighter pair.”
Wren nodded in understanding and said, “Better to rule in h, er, the Abyss than serve in heaven and all that. Fact remains, you are a slave in more ways than one as a demon but the choice was yours to make. It was only passing caprice that made me offer it anyway.”
Chanda spoke up with emotional voice, “Would such a choice be available to me?”
As Wren thought about it, Rozchereck interjected, “A demon could become a celestial? Then I could... I am already your true servant, I would beg this fav-”
Chanda interrupted angrily, “Then you have no more to offer! Having offered all, now you shamelessly borrow against it!?”
Wren said, “There is no need, Roz. I have saved a vial for you, awaiting the day I believe you are ready for it... Chanda, you're not Abyss born, you're a fallen. The path for your redemption from demonhood is already laid. You were just never enlightened to it's existence.”
Petre looked at Wren dubiously, disbelief clear on his face. Despite that, he said nothing.
Wren said, “There's time for this elsewhere... Sammy, make the year and a day oath, for now, and lets be on our way.”
Once Samskara was done, Chanda said, “What of my loyal subordinates?”
Wren raised an eyebrow and said, “You have those?... I joke. Pick one and only one. If you can interest Roz to take one then that is an option as well.”
Chanda shook his triple faced head sadly for a second before he said, “Before today it would have been a hard choice but since those devil spined bastards killed Gormon then I only have one for whom I care to stretch my neck for... Give me a tail shake and I'll return.”
Wren held up a hand and said, “Hold up, Chanda. Take this storage ring. I want any seeds and tribute items you might have in your storage that you personally don't need. Don't be an ass about it either. I'm generous to those who aren't stingy to me. Start holding out on me and I'll return the favor with a vengeance. As someone who fell due to that vice, I want you to know I wouldn't disappoint you on how well I can hold a grudge.”
Even against myself... Seriously, fuck you, teenage ass-hat. You saw the strings that controlled the world then hung me and everyone I've ever cared about with them.
Petre approached Wren and whispered, “Is this where I should start reminding you to excise your problem?”
Wren nodded and said, “Close enough. I need to wait till Chanda gets back and we...No, I need to do it now.”
Wren returned to his middle space inside the warded part of the garden and bid his manifestation to do what it did before to get rid of the wrongness it took before. There was a moment where it seemed the demon side wouldn't do it but then a chain shot into the core of Wren and started digging. Though the mass wasn't nearly as big a part of himself as before, it was apparently much harder to grasp. Wren gritted his teeth and sweated profusely as the chain did it's dirty work. Much like before, Wren felt as weak as a half drowned kitten.
It dawned on Wren, after the fact, that the demon side may have hesitated to do what it had because it weakened Wren during a situation that could easily get confrontational. In precaution, Wren took one of his precious essence restoratives but it would take time for his astral body to recover from the trauma. It felt more strange than bad, though.
Ever since he started this last iteration, Wren had hit the ground running but he realized that the power behind this push was running dry. He had exploited the insights, set himself up to take advantage of everything he could. He had even managed to send someone to pick up one of the most useful things in reality considering what was coming, yet there was still time. To a demigod or higher, a few hundred years was not a long time but to a person like Wren, it seemed like an unfathomable span.
After he finished his business in the Abyss, he had no idea of what to do after. There was no more initiative to act on and with the self-destruct button taken out of him there wasn't an automatic sword of Damocles hanging over his head on anything he decided to get embroiled in. Since the moment the first Wren stepped into the first white trial room, his course had been plotted out for him, the good and the bad.
I have been mind fucked and led around by the nose for so long, that I don't even know what I should do with this... this free will! Well, I might be a little lost right now but I'm not gonna act like some inmate who received a sudden pardon. I'm not looking for another jackass to throw me into yet another rat maze. I'm going to finish what I came here for and then I'm getting the heck outta here.
After cleaning himself up and checking on Vigna, Wren returned Abyss-side and absolute chaos. The room that he was in when he left no longer existed. His subordinates were circled around the ruins of it, surrounded by the vast majority of the outpost. Many were screaming for Chanda's head and the only thing that kept them from rushing in en mass was a wicked looking spiderweb of angrily black and red sigils.
Wren pinched the bridge of his nose for a half second before summoning his spectral transport and activating the artifact that boosted its capabilities. Making a circling motion with his hands, a thick circular barrier of sandstone rose from the ground just outside the curse perimeter.
Wren sighed and said, “Quick version, what happened?”
When Sable and Chanda began talking at once, Wren pointed at Sable who said, “I tripped an alarm trap keyed to planar shifting.”
Seeing that Sable thought that was all the information that was needed, Wren turned to Chanda who said, “I was in the middle of cleaning out the central vault with... Doesn't matter any more... when the alarm went off. Central vault is first priority during post alerts. The bastard who was with me, forced what he was holding into my hands as the first respond team showed up, fingering me as a deserter and placing himself in charge to order my arrest. Aside from killing my way here, starting with him, the rest you can figure out easy enough.”
Wren said, “ Chanda and Roz, lower your dimensional resistance, I'm sending you into my realm. You guys are way too heavy for me to lug around on the transport. It's a tight squeeze on room and capacity but Sable, Petre and Sammy, climb aboard.”
After everyone was where they needed to be, Wren lifted off, directly up. Aside from a few heavy glances that rocked Wren's mind a little to hold the transport together, made it to a hundred foot with little difficulty. Hovering there for a few seconds, Wren gathered together a manifestation assisted fog and started disseminating a generous amount of blessed silver powder with summoned corrosive gas in it. With a subtle push of power the fog began being attracted and sticking to the demons below. Once the screams of rage were replaced in the greater majority by screams and wails of pain, Wren began lowering back down.
Wren looked at Petre and Sable then said, “Petre, take your aura sight pill. You know who to collect. Sable, watch his back.”
Once they were suited, he dropped them off with a blink. Summoning Roz, he threw together a quick TSSR suit for Sammy and told the succubus to 'go ham', then explained what that meant, before having Rozchereck take his aura pill and had him battle buddy Sammy. Lastly he brought Chanda out and threw him another shoddy TSSR suit with the instructions to 'loot first and kill as necessary but be ready to dash back to transport.
It made Wren feel bad, sitting in his transport and using conjurations to crowd control but ultimately he reasoned that he was a squishy mage and that was exactly where he needed to be. He started feeling real good about his position when one demon fired off an invasion flair that would have brought someone investigating. A precision timed exercise of void power and some cold sweat later, the last resistance fell and demons started trying to surrender.
Wren supported that idea and after some nauseating but necessary culling later, a group of demons who swore an oath to corroborate the story of a rogue devil attack were released with some supplies and enough goodies to incriminate them should they find a way around the oath.
Summoning Aaron's call mark, Wren said, “Rub your ass on everything, figuratively speaking, Aaron... Crew, Imma collect the fertilizer and do a quick round of liquid spirit refining then we are getting the frack outta here... Chanda and Sammy, you can crank your jaws back into place. Yes, the Tier VI is on my payroll, so to speak. Yes he's a devil but it's temporary and soon enough he'll return to the good ol' fashioned gloaming fae world god he was always meant to be.”
A magnetic masculine voice said, “That has to be one of the most unique and interesting statements I've heard in centuries.”
Wren stared at the ibis headed figure that rippled reality around him and said, “What are you doing in the Abyss!?”