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Jason and Farrah both extended their senses when the arch remained empty and the portal failed to open. If they hadn’t been so shocked by their captured and dead companions they might have paid more attention to their surroundings but it was only now that they detected the magical devices set up in a wide circle around them. Farrah was familiar with the magic and knew it would be made up of a series of magic rods hammered into the ground, just out of sight.

“It’s a dimensional condensation net,” she told Jason through their party chat. “Keep him distracted while I take it out.”

Jason cast a spell at Gerling.

“Your fate is to suffer.”

Gerling glared at him.

“A category three actually affecting me with his crap?” Gerling said, and then looked down at his arm. While kicking Jason across the ground, he hadn’t even noticed Jason getting in the two shallow cuts. Wounds that shallow should have already healed, demonstrating the noxiousness of Jason’s abilities, something Gerling had been thoroughly warned about. Gerling looked back up at Jason even as Jason rapidly chanted more spells.

“Bleed for me.”

“Bear the mark of your transgressions.”

Fresh blood leaked from the two cuts and a symbol was branded onto the back of his hand by a small flash of transcendent damage.

Despite knowing full well the nature of Jason’s power, Gerling didn’t rush, staring down Jason.

“I don’t like your aura,” Gerling said. “I can feel it. Judging me. I’m not yours to judge, Asano.”

Gerling projected his aura to suppress Jason’s and was startled at the result. He had heard that Jason’s aura was strong but he wasn’t prepared for the degree to which that was true. Gerling’s gold rank aura was stronger but far from overwhelming, despite the full rank of difference. Even that gap was made up by the difference in aura control. Gerling’s aura control skills were adequate but Jason’s were immaculate. Trying to suppress Jason’s aura was like trying to grip a wet, frictionless ball that kept slipping through his fingers.

Jason gave no reaction to Gerling’s attack, as if he hadn’t even noticed. Instead, he looked at the conjured dagger in his hand as it started to transform. The sinister blade grew longer as it extended into a sword shape, also changing colour. It turning from obsidian black and blood red to pristine silver. The red embellishment remained but the barbed motif was smoothed into clean lines, as well as bright red runes set into the blade.

Ability: [Blade of Doom] (Doom)

  • Conjuration (holy, unholy, curse, disease, poison).
  • Cost: Moderate mana.
  • Cooldown: None.

 

  • Current rank: Silver 1 (19%).

 

  • Effect (iron): Conjures [Ruin, the Blade of Tribulation]. Attacks made with Ruin will inflict an instance of [Vulnerable] and refresh any wounding effects on the target. Wounding effects refreshed by Ruin require more healing than normal to negate. Ruin is an unholy object.

 

  • Effect (bronze): Ruin inflicts one instance each of [Ruination of the Blood], [Ruination of the Flesh] and [Ruination of the Spirit].

 

  • Effect (silver): Blade gains a second form: [Penitent, the Blade of Sacrifice]. Attacks made with Penitent will inflict an instance of [Price in Blood] and refresh any wounding effects on the target. Wounding effects refreshed by Penitent require more healing than normal to negate. Penitent is a holy object.

 

  • [Vulnerable] (affliction, unholy, stacking): All resistances are reduced. Additional instances have a cumulative effect. Consumed to cleanse instances of [Resistant] on a 1:1 basis.

 

  • [Ruination of the Blood] (damage-over-time, poison, stacking): Inflicts ongoing necrotic damage until the poison is cleansed. Additional instances have a cumulative effect.

 

  • [Ruination of the Flesh] (damage-over-time, disease, stacking): Inflicts ongoing necrotic damage until the disease is cleansed. Additional instances have a cumulative effect.

 

  • [Ruination of the Spirit] (damage-over-time, curse, stacking): Inflicts ongoing necrotic damage until the curse is cleansed. Additional instances have a cumulative effect.

 

  • [Price in Blood] (affliction, holy, blood, stacking): This affliction is applied equally to the person it is inflicted upon and the person who inflicts it. This affliction cannot be cleansed while a person who shares it is alive and is immediately negated if the person who shares it dies. Damage between people who share the affliction is increased, including damage sources in place prior to this effect. Damage from holy sources is further increased. Only damage actually inflicted is increased; damage negated by damage reduction and protection abilities is not. Additional instances have a cumulative effect.

The second form of the Blade of Doom power was a double-edge sword with a double-edged power. The Price in Blood affliction caused both the deliverer and the recipient to hurt each other all the more, making avoiding damage a critical objective. It was a massive gamble against a gold-rank enemy but silver-rank attacks against such a foe were like digging through a brick wall with a spoon and Jason needed to hold Gerling’s attention.

Jason stilled the storm of fury in his soul, tapping into his meditative techniques to push the rage and pain from his mind and let a calm settle over him. He knew that control was what he needed, while the illusory strength of passion would only hurt him. If he were alone he might have been consumed by it but he still had people he needed to get out alive and couldn’t allow himself the indulgence. A calm came over him as his silver eyes locked onto Gerling and he started walking slowly forward. Gerling grinned, rushing at Jason to swing a fist at lightning speed.

Gold rankers were absurdly fast. Jason had seen Emir move at full speed a few times and, to iron-rank Jason, it had been indistinguishable from Sophie’s movement powers. The speed attribute alone of a gold-ranker was almost a teleportation power. Even at bronze-rank, the speed of a gold-ranker would be little more than a blur. Only at silver could Jason’s reflexes keep up at all, and even then it was like moving through molasses.

Jason had every other advantage. His skill, both in terms of fighting technique and the use of his abilities, was as far above Gerling’s as Gerling’s raw power was above Jason’s. Jason’s powers were also better suited to a close-quarters fight. His cloak hid his movements and manipulated space, while his weapon gave him the reach on the unarmed Gerling.

Gerling’s powers, on the other hand, made him more of a siege weapon than a duellist. His explosive powers were better suited to assaulting an army than a person. Even so, he was simply so fast, so strong and so tough that it didn’t matter. Jason landed half a dozen hits with his sword, massively accelerating his already locked-in suite of powers and Gerling was barely impaired.

It took Gerling time to hit Jason, whose skill and abilities made him frustratingly evasive. When the hit landed, however, the result was devastating. Gerling’s strength, enhanced by an explosive fist power and Jason’s own damage-accelerating power left Jason as little more than a bloody mess, bouncing along the ground like a skipping stone.

Instead of following up, Gerling dashed off to arrive in front of Farrah. She had been making her way to one of the buried rods restricting Jason’s portal, using her lava cannon power to devastate the team of silver-rankers that moved to intercept her.

“Hello, hot stuff,” Gerling said and swung his fist.

Farrah did not fight like Jason, as reflected by her equipment. Where Jason conjured sleek robes and a wispy cloak, she conjured heavy obsidian armour. Instead of a dagger, she conjured a huge sword that could extend out into a barbed lava whip. She did also have orbs floating around her, but instead of glowing eyes, they were searing flames.

Jason's style was elusive, deceptive and mobile. Farrah, by contrast, was all about power; not just using it but also dealing with it. For all the power at her command, she had won it fighting monsters that were stronger and tougher than she was, just like Gerling.

Gerling was surprised at his inability to land a solid hit as Farrah slight but efficient movement always managed to deflect his hits or shift her angle just the right way to negate the bulk of the damage. Only the explosive power shrouding his fists had a major effect, blasting off chunks of her armour.

Farrah drew on her vast combat experience and moved with the hits, letting it lead her into counterattacks. Like Jason, Farrah was much more adept with her powers than Gerling. Her whip sword made of lava and obsidian danced like a monstrous snake as it drew blood, while the burning orbs floating around her lunged in to burn his face, distracting him. The attacks had full effect, as well, the damage reduction from his superior rank not being a factor.

Ability: [Limit Breaker] (Potent)

  • Special ability.
  • Cost: None.
  • Cooldown: None.

 

  • Current rank: Silver 2 (07%).

 

  • Effect (iron): Ignore rank disparity in resistances and damage reduction.

 

  • Effect (bronze): Increase the effect of abilities by increasing their cost.

 

  • Effect (silver): The enhanced state from consuming a spirit coin lasts for significantly longer and the after-effects are reduced.

Farrah attacks also left Gerling covered in burning flames. Momentarily being placed on the back foot enraged him and he clapped his hands together to create an explosion that swept out in front of him. At the same time, though, a wall of obsidian rose up between him and Farrah. He sneered as the explosion blasted the wall to fragment, only to be startled when the fragments flew the wrong way. Even as the force of the explosion passed through the shattered wall and knocked Farrah off her feet, the fragments of wall blasted back into Gerling, digging into his flesh. Lying on the ground, Farrah quickly chanted a spell.

“Children of the volcano, be reborn in fire.”

The shards of obsidian buried in Gerling’s flesh melted into magma, inflicting a pain even the gold ranker couldn’t ignore. Farrah got to her feet as Gerling yelled in rage and pain, stumbling back, not even hearing the quiet chant behind him.

“Your blood is not yours to keep but mine on which to feast.”

At silver-rank, Jason recovery powers were terrifying to behold. Far from appearing near death, he now looked completely fresh, his conjured robes and cloak covering the blood coating his body underneath. The life force he drained from the gold-ranker brought his health back up to full and beyond, with his Sin Eater ability allowing his health to surpass its normal maximum.

Jason didn’t launch Colin into the fray, and not just because Gerling was covered in flames. Area attacks were a critical weakness for swarm-type enemies and Gerling seemed to be all about explosions. More importantly, Jason was going to need the healing his familiar provided by remaining subsumed. Knowing he would need to rely on himself, he used a damage spell that took advantage of the afflictions still accumulating on Gerling.


Ability: [Punition] (Doom)

  • Cost: Moderate mana.
  • Cooldown: 30 seconds.
  • Current rank: Silver 1 (09%).
  • Effect (iron): Inflicts necrotic damage for each curse, disease, poison and unholy affliction the target is suffering.
  • Effect (bronze): Inflicts or refreshes the duration of [Penitence].
  • Effect (silver): Damage per affliction can be increased by increasing the mana cost to high, very high, or extreme. This reduces the cooldown to 20 seconds, 10 seconds or none. Consecutive, extreme-cost uses have a shorter incantation.

 

  • [Penitence] (affliction, holy): Gain an instance of [Penance] for each curse, disease, poison or unholy effect that is cleansed from you. This is a holy effect.
  • [Penance] (affliction, holy, damage-over-time, stacking): Deals ongoing transcendent damage. Additional instances have a cumulative effect, dropping off as damage is dealt.

“Suffer the cost of your transgressions.”

Jason’s abilities were largely mana efficient, a trait shared by most affliction specialists. Punition stood out as his big, instantaneous damage spell, although it required set up to be effective. As of silver-rank, it became a mana sink giving him a large hammer to swing when he needed to go all out.

Against a silver-rank opponent, even a moderate time under Jason’s afflictions would have placed them in a bad position. Gerling, however, demonstrated the near-indestructibility of a gold-ranker, showing the marks of both Jason and Farrah’s attacks without yet being impeded by them. Even Jason’s newly-enhanced Punition spell failed to make a sizeable dent in the gold-ranker’s condition, although it was enough to surprise their powerful enemy.

Gerling was frustrated at how much he was being shown up by the two silver-rankers that should have been overwhelmed by his power to the point that he hadn’t treated them as real opponents. As he was filled with anger, that changed. He hammered his fists together and a powerful blast exploded out, sending Farrah and Jason flying.

The two silver-rankers scrambled to their feet as Gerling strode from the cloud of earth and dust thrown up by his power. He was still wreathed in fire from Farrah’s abilities but his disregard and iron glare made the flames seem more like his power than hers. He stomped his foot and the ground in a wide area around her exploded up, throwing her into the air and battering her with both force and magically-empowered rocks that exploded as the came near her.

At the same time, Gerling threw a fist in Jason's direction and he was blasted with a broad wave of force. If he had not been denied shadow-jumping he could have avoided it but was instead battered and blasted back.

This was the signal of a change in the tenor of the fight as Gerling unleashed one area attack after another in an unrelenting assault that gave neither Jason nor Farrah time to recover and rally. It was a terrible strategy against enemies of a similar rank as such abilities were high cost and relatively low damage, which is how the silver-rankers survived the barrage. Jason’s stacked rapid healing effects kept him healing through the damage while Farrah’s armour and magically enhanced toughness allowed her to endure.

***

Network personnel were watching from the nearby camp. The second in command of the Berlin forces threw an unhappy glance at Cleary, on the other side of the camp.

“Boss,” she told her commander, “this isn’t right. I’m pretty sure we’re working for the bad guys, here.”

“Tell me something I don’t know,” he growled.

“Maybe we don’t have to?”

“What are you suggesting? That’s a category four over there and I have zero interest in having my head crushed in his fist like a soft fruit.”

“Those things stopping them from escaping. Maybe we could take one out.”

“How? By taking out our own people guarding them? Look, I’m not opposed to doing something. Just come up with an idea better than that.”

“Maybe we just need the right opportunity, Boss. If it doesn’t come, it doesn’t come, but if we’re ready and it does…”

“Alright,” the commander said. “Spread the word. Careful and quiet.”

***

Jason and Farrah’s superior skills were overwhelmed by the combination of power disparity and cheap tactics, Gerling having enough area abilities to almost stun lock them both. Their attempts to push back fell short, Jason barely managing to stay alive, throwing out Punition and his health drain spell every chance he could. He called out Gordon, who chained his shield orbs to protect himself and Jason, as well as inflict his butterfly effect on Gerling. After three attacks, each one destroying a shield orb, a disruptive force blast from the gold ranker left the incorporeal familiar ragged. Since it took a full minute to recover a destroyed orb, Jason called Gordon back into himself before the familiar’s vessel was destroyed.

The butterflies manifesting on Gerling did not impair the gold ranker; instead, they flew off in every direction. The Network forces had staged teams near the buried rods preventing Jason’s portal from working and the butterflies went in their direction. Some of the butterflies were caught up in Gerling’s area attacks and others were shot down by the Network troops using disruptive force attacks that caused the butterflies to detonate. As Jason’s powers kept multiplying the butterfly affliction, though, more and more butterflies went out, increasing the pressure.

Farrah burned through her mana re-conjuring armour over and over as the explosive attacks broke it apart. As the area attacks drew close to the Asano sisters and Itsuki, who had made their way to the inactive portal as they watched the conflict. Farrah knew she had to push back before their collared companions were caught up and killed. After withstanding another attack, Farrah took out a gold spirit coin and slipped it into her mouth.

Farrah’s body was immediately flooded with power, her Limit Breaker ability handling the gold-rank energy in a smooth flow, compared to the brutish force other essence users experienced when using a coin. She leapt through the air using a special attack, her sword lighting up with white-hot flames as Gerling's latest area attack failed to knock back the momentum of her enhanced attack and forcing him to take it head-on.

Unfortunately, he could. Even with her attributes raised to gold, Farrah was not a match for a true gold-ranker, although the boost was enough to push him with her greater mastery of both fighting technique and ability use. In the break, Jason made his way for the closest buried rod, hoping to disrupt the effect.

Gerling was not unaware of Jason’s actions and used one of the long cooldown abilities from his vast essence. A void sphere appeared in the middle of the area they were fighting, creating a massive gravitational pull towards it. Gerling and Farrah both resisted, Gerling only partially affected by his own ability while Farrah dug her sword into the ground as an anchor. Itsuki and the Asano sisters braced themselves against Jason’s inactive portal arch.

Jason and the Network troops around the perimeter of the battle zone suffered the full brunt, all being dragged to the sphere, which then exploded. Jason and the other silver-rankers survived, although all were savaged by the raw power of the blast that scattered them back around the battlefield. All the bronze-rankers in the Network teams sucked in were dead.

***

At the camp, Cleary ordered new teams in to replace the one that had been guarding the buried rods. The commander stormed up to him, furious.

“Are you joking? Your guy just took out half my entire contingent, a lot of them dead. Now you want me to send more in there?”

“Unless you want to be the next on the list when my category-four friend comes back, yes.”

The commander bared his teeth but finally turned away.

“Alright,” he announced to his sections. “Everyone head to your assigned back-up points.”

The commander glanced back at Cleary.

“And remember what you were just told,” the commander said to his personnel. “Move out.”

Cleary frowned, uncertain of what the commander had been referencing but put it to the back of his mind as he returned his attention to the fight. The fact that there was a fight at all, rather than a one-sided hammering was not a part of his plans.

***

Jason managed another draining spell on Gerling, instantaneously flooding Jason with healing. Despite the massive health drain, it barely seemed to affect Gerling. Despite Farrah’s flames and Jason’s afflictions, Gerling was still going strong, the absurd resilience of a gold-ranker proving dominant. If Jason had a whole team of silver-rankers to hold up Gerling, he could probably do the damage required to take him down but just himself and Farrah were not enough. Even with his afflictions running rampant, Gerling was still going strong.

Butterflies were landing on the silver rankers lying hurt on the ground, even as the freshly-healed Jason stood up, delivering affliction packages that would most likely kill them before they got help. Jason used his Feast of Absolution power, replenishing his mana and stamina as he drained the afflictions from them, making sure not to include Gerling. Gerling was not hurt to the point that switching from the sinister afflictions to holy ones would be effective.

Farrah was winding down, her gold-rank power fading away. Soon it would be gone and she would be weaker than before, so Jason made another run at the buried rods, even as reinforcements from the camp moved around the outside of the battlefield to guard them.

Farrah was sent hurtling off as her power faded and Gerling hit her square in the chest with a potent ability. Gerling then zipped to intercept Jason, grabbing his neck from behind and tossing him back, far from the buried rods. Gerling moved over Jason and planted a foot on his chest.

“You’re done, Asano. You put up a good fight. If we were the same rank, you’d have won. But we’re not. Power is always king.”

“In the other world, they call it the tyranny of rank,” Jason said.

“Tyranny of rank? I like that.”

“I hope you like your flesh melting off. Good luck clearing those afflictions.”

“What did I just tell you? Luck doesn’t matter. Skill doesn’t matter. Only power matters.”

Jason face filled with anguish as he felt a familiar surge of power from within Gerling, the reason that Gerling had been chosen as the gold-ranker they awoke. Gerling, it turned out, shared a power with Humphrey, also gaining it from the might essence. That power was called Immortality, which instigated an incredibly powerful healing effect. It was a power known by the Magic Society, so after Humphrey had looked it up, Jason learned that, at silver-rank, it gained the ability to purge all afflictions, ignoring any and all effects that prevented cleansing. Jason had encountered a similar effect used by the archbishop of the church of Purity.

“That power,” Jason said. “A friend of mine has it. I know that it can bring you back from the dead at gold rank.”

“Now you know that killing me wouldn’t have helped you.”

“That’s alright,” Jason said. “Now I get to kill you twice.”

Gerling chuckled as he took a battered and singed but still functioning suppression collar from a belt satchel. As he bent down to put it on, explosions erupted around the edge of the battlefield.

***

Moments earlier, Cleary had been watching with satisfaction as Gerling ended the fight. Farrah was badly hurt, her collared companions rushing to check on her. Asano was seemingly immortal but Gerling now had him literally underfoot. Too late, Cleary spotted the new teams at the buried rods digging into the ground before they all started running.

“What are they…?”

Grenades the teams had just dropped into holes alongside the rods started going off. The empty space in Jason’s inactive portal was suddenly filled with darkness, the Asano sisters dragging Farrah through, Itsuki following after. Cleary watched in horror as Jason slipped out from under Gerling’s foot and flung himself at the portal.

Gerling was only startled for a moment and he still had gold-rank reflexes. He threw out a hand in Jason’s direction and fired a force bolt. It flew past Jason, exploding between Jason and the portal, flinging Jason back even as Gerling moved forward. Gerling grabbed Jason’s head in a huge, meaty hand, clamping the suppression collar into place with the other.

As soon as Jason’s powers were cut off, the portal descended into the ground and vanished. Furious, Gerling hammered his fist into Jason’s head until Jason fell unconscious, and then hammered it some more.

***

Jason woke up in a transport container, reinforced with what looked like a roll-cage, to which Jason had been very thoroughly chained, hands and feet. Jason waited to recover some more before acting, his portal still being a couple of minutes from being usable again and knowing that he would need to move fast. His powers were suppressed but Colin, inside him, was still healing him at a formidable rate.

The container was on the move, on a transport helicopter Jason guessed from the motion. Gerling was likely to be close by but Jason wasn’t going to risk extending his senses until he was prepared to act.

It was hard to sense if his powers were off cooldown while they were suppressed but this was something Jason was used to, having long used suppression collars in his aura training. That was how he could be sure when his portal was ready and he could begin to act.

Jason plotted through his series of rapid actions, ready to execute them as quickly as possible. He started by pushing off the silver-rank suppression effect with his aura, then conjuring his cloak and using the space distortion ability to slip out of the manacles and leg chains, even as he called up a portal. He dove through it just in time as the container was ripped apart to reveal Gerling, who had sensed Jason’s aura when he overcame the collar. All Gerling found was Jason’s portal, descending into the floor.

“What the fu–”

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Shirtaloon (Travis Deverell)

  • Australia

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