A bolt of black lightning struck from a clear sky. It impacted the ground, leaving a crater smoking with dark mana. As the dust settled, a single figure could be seen kneeling within the crater, holding his shoulder as blood dripped down on the ground beneath him.
Caleb slowly got up, breathing heavily as he felt exhausted from using the skill. It had drained a good ninety-five percent of his mana pool, making him not worth much at the current time. He took out a mana potion to at least be functional as he reflected on mistakes made.
It turns out being a shadowy organization had quite a number of challenges, especially if they had a lot of enemies due to the nature of their trade. It made everyone an enemy and forced you to look out for more threats than you possibly could.
The Court of Shadows had faced quite the challenges trying to mobilize themselves and secure their position. Not with getting the loot, that part went relatively easily; the issue was keeping ahold of it. Most assassins operated alone or in very small teams of a maximum of three, so facing a large group was difficult. Hit and run was the name of the game.
Stealth was their only true weapon to hold onto the loot they obtained. Against the usual enemy of independent factions, lone individuals, and small parties, that was all fine and dandy, but they began having issues when all their couriers or smaller groups got hit repeatedly. They then tried to centralize the loot with the stronger people in the Court, but then the couriers just got ambushed during transport.
Their ambushers? The Holy Church.
To hide from someone with the ability to divine the future and peer into fate became a challenge they honestly should have predicted. The Holy Church discovered that there was a lot to be gained by stealing from the thieves, and they could even claim the moral high ground while doing so, making it a purely win-win situation for the religious fanatics.
This forced the Court to pool the loot more on people who were either strong enough to defend it or good enough at hiding. The Augur seemed to know who was worth hitting at all times, and the Court of Shadows took more and more precautions. In the end, they began having a large central group, with the majority of loot being carried by Caleb. He and others could veil them all constantly to keep them hidden, and they escaped the Church and went on with their business without any major issues for a few days.
Keeping an eye on other notable figures was something they also did. Eron had disappeared, so that made them worry a bit. The people of Valhal seemed to just take the losses from the occasional assassin, seeing it as simply a sign of weakness and a teaching moment for those hit. The undead were rarely targeted as they moved in big groups, and they had shown no signs of significant movements against other factions. The people from Haven? They were naturally left alone, and besides, they had been stuck in the massive maze-like Vault for a long time. A few from the Court had also been trapped in there too, as well as over a thousand others.
As for the Noboru Clan? Their notable members were either trapped in the big maze or moved around in one large group these days. The Sword Saint was spotted often with the group, so the Court followed it to keep an eye on him. The man himself disappeared occasionally, but he never strayed too far from the central base of his faction.
Until he did.
Out of nowhere, he was suddenly just there, right in front of their temporary base, one hidden behind endless barriers that had primarily focused on obscuring divination and hiding them. The Sword Saint had cut through them all, and the Court had reacted too slow.
He was just a single man, and in all their arrogance, they had believed he wouldn’t be able to break them himself. They had a few hundred people there. Barriers. Traps. Caleb himself, as well as Matteo, Nadia, and a few others of the most powerful assassins. Even Caleb had believed the man was arrogant for truly believing he could defeat them all alone.
How wrong they had been. Caleb had faced the Sword Saint with all the others… the result?
Well, him having to flee, fourteen dead, and one-hundred and ninety-one forced to leave the Hunt, including Nadia and Matteo, who had both tried to hold him off. Those who died were the weakest, mainly people who had been arrogant and tried to face him head-on.
The only consolation was Caleb having carried over eighty percept of the Court of Shadows total loot as he was the one with the highest level of confidence in retreating due to his near-immunity to divination and his many methods of escape. But, even then, it had gotten far more dangerous than he was comfortable with.
All of this made Caleb wonder. He had known Jake was monstrously strong before, and him having even trounced all of those independent factions once more confirmed his strength, yet now Caleb couldn’t help but worry…
Because the Sword Saint was also an absolute monster.
Ah, skill selection. Always a good time to get a better feel for one’s progress and see what the system had conjured up. From fucked up skills telling One to become a sadistic slaver to telling someone they should really consider getting a proper arcane barrier skill. Or, as it most often ended up doing, just giving Jake ideas on how to improve his existing freeform version of magic.
Thus, as always, Jake went into it with high expectations, looking for a skill doing things he himself could not, or at least something so darn complicated or weird he had wouldn’t figure out how to do it himself anytime soon. Or, you know, just something that sounded cool.
The first skill was neither of these things.
[Hunter’s Natural Adaptation (Uncommon)] – A hunter must always adapt to the environment in which they hunt. Allows the hunter to acclimate to new environments more easily and grants resistance against neutral mana you do not possess an affinity to. This effect is amplified by Toughness.
This skill was just the system going: “Oh hey there, I saw you just experienced something new! Here, let me give you a skill retroactively after you already figured out how to deal with it. Sure would have been nice to have earlier, eh?”
It made him wonder how many people had died a level or two before being offered skill that would allow them to avoid that death. Sure, he got how the system couldn’t just give skills and predict the future, but…
Anyway, he didn’t want it. It was uncommon-rarity too, which was just icky. Moving on.
[Explosive Arcane Orb (Rare)] – By your will, explosive arcana shall come into being. Allows the hunter to summon an explosive orb of arcane mana at a target location within your range of perception. The arcane orb will be highly unstable and will automatically explode mere moments after being conjured. Adds a bonus to the effectiveness of Intelligence when using Explosive Arcane Orb.
It appeared Jake’s explosive arcane orb-like things had finally become different enough from arcane bolts to warrant their own skill, so that was nice. Proof he was going in the right direction with that one, which naturally made him happy.
Arcane Orbs, rather than bolts, were more just manifested bombs at specific locations and weren’t really designed to be fired, just summoned and then made to explode where he summoned them. A bit of a by-product of his Pride of the Malefic Viper upgrade and his infused presence, making mana control more straightforward in his surrounding area. There was just something about summoning bombs in mid-air that was funny.
Didn’t make him not skip it, though. Next!
[Arcane Shotgun (Rare)] – Your arcane-mana can take many forms, so why not mimic a weapon of old? Allows the hunter to fire off shards of highly stable arcane mana, functioning as a shotgun. These shards will pierce and deal significant damage at close range while becoming less effective at long distances. Adds a bonus to the effectiveness of Intelligence when using Arcane Shotgun.
Jake wanted to pick this one just from the name alone, but his logical mind managed to hold him back. It did give him an idea to have Arnold design one just to look cool. Either way, the skill had clearly come from the crystalline bolts he kept making against the fish, and he had kind of mimicked how shotguns worked when he fired arcane mana shard with a good spread. You needed good spread when you fired many small projectiles, after all. Also, it helped with him not having to be that accurate.
Another funny one, but not one Jake would ever pick. So far, this skill selection had been a case of “see what you have done in the past in the form of uncommon and rare skills,” which wasn’t very interesting. At least the next one was Epic-rarity and a bit different.
[Conjure Arcane Armaments (Epic)] – A weapon or piece of equipment is always within grasp when you can simply conjure them yourselves. Allows the hunter to summon armaments of stable Arcane mana. The shape of the weapons or equipment is determined by the summoner. Armaments can be given to others. The duration and durability of all equipment summoned are based on mana expended. Adds a bonus to the effectiveness of Wisdom when using Conjure Arcane Armaments.
This was the one… if Jake wanted to become an arms dealer. If he read it right, he could create weapons others could temporarily use with his arcane mana. It was an upgraded version of the Spectral Weaponry he had seen oh-so-long ago. Back then, he had skipped it as he believed it was something he could do himself with freeform magic, and he still believed that to this day.
The only possible thing that could make him pick the skill was how it explicitly stated others could use what he created. Not because he wanted to have others use it, but because it could possibly give him some inspiration when it came to using Touch of the Malefic Viper and transmuting items. If he could make transmuted stuff useable by others, that would be great, and no doubt also allow him to heighten his own skill significantly… maybe even get that to legendary-rarity too.
But why would he do that when he could just pick up a legendary skill here and now by choosing the fifth option?
[Steady Aim of the Apex Hunter (Legendary)] – When the string is taut and the arrow ready, the hunter’s focus reaches new realms. To aim and shoot the perfect shot is what any hunter aims for, and as one who stands at the apex, you refuse for even time to hamper your accuracy. Allows the hunter to significantly heighten his focus when the bowstring is fully pulled, tapping into the concept of time to slow down his perception of it while simultaneously boosting all effects of Perception significantly. Your eyes receive this boost to Perception at twice the effect of all your other senses. All effects scale with Perception.
Jake had to admit… the name was incredibly boring to the level of nearly being criminal. It was pretty much just a “steady aim” skill with some fancy title added on and a flavorful description. Also, let’s be fair, the name was bad, and Jake didn’t understand why the skill hadn’t just called it by its rightful name: Arrow Time. The bowman version of bullet time.
Alright, in all seriousness, the skill description and simplicity of the skill really did speak for itself. It was a skill made for better aiming taken to an absolutely extreme level and made into a legendary skill. Perhaps it was one of those times where Jake was meant to be offered some version of Steady Aim, and the system then analyzed Jake or something and decided he had reached some threshold to get the legendary version.
As for how that would have happened… well, the skill did feel awfully similar to his Moment of the Primal Hunter. Likely there was even a bit of Gaze of the Apex Hunter mixed in there considering the similarity in name between the two skills and the extra bonus to his eyes. Perhaps it was just an amalgamation of a few different skills and Jake’s practice with aiming and ability to quickly aim and make decisions.
Honestly, he had no way of ever knowing. He just knew he had the skill offered and that he would be an utter moron for not picking it up. Which is to say he naturally picked it.
The moment he did so, he felt… nothing. Yeah, he just picked the skill and stood there expecting something to happen. Not to be misunderstood, he was only anticipating some instinctive knowledge, not some grand understanding of the concept of time. Just something.
Yet nothing. Jake frowned, checked his status, and saw the skill there. Shrugging, he decided to just take the most straightforward approach and test it out. With his bow in hand, he casually summoned an arrow and nocked it. He raised his bow as he drew the string, and then… then the world slowed.
Jake’s eyes began glowing with even more power than before. He felt the droplets of water dripping from above slow down significantly… in that to the naked eye, they had entirely stopped. One had to remember that under normal circumstances when Jake focused on aiming, it already felt like time slowed down simply due to his high perception. Same as when he was fighting, It was something everyone experienced simply due to the growth of stats. If not, how else would anyone be able to react to an arrow flying faster than any sniper bullet or a sword swung several times the speed of sound?
But this? This was different. This was like the difference between when Jake perceived his surroundings while still in E—grade and now. With this new skill, he had ample time to think, react, aim, and locate the optimal target. He even felt that many aspects of his shots would be improved… for didn’t his passive Archery of Vast Horizons make his arrows stronger based on perception? And his stable arcane arrows damage more based on it too?
He attempted to move as the entire world seemed to have stopped moving and found that it wasn’t only the world but him too. It wasn’t like Moment of the Primal Hunter, where he could move unaffected with everything else slowed down. This time around, he was also affected just as much as everything else. In other words, it was only Jake’s mind and perception of time, not time itself.
Shifting his aim a bit could still be done slighter faster, and micro-movements were naturally more precise when he had more time to adjust. However, it quickly became apparent he didn’t have infinite time to just stand there with the string fully pulled. He began feeling a faint headache slowly come on, and Jake finally released the arrow.
It slammed into the wall, failing to truly leave any mark due to the indestructible construction of the underwater Vault, but he still felt that the arrow had been more potent than usual. Jake instantly drew his bow again, and the moment he had the string taut, time slowed once more. This time, the headache came quite a bit faster. He shot and pulled the string again a third time. The headache came super fast now.
Some separate limited resource meter for Arrow Time? Jake wondered. He had been standing there for a damn long time with the string fully pulled with the first arrow. A dozen seconds in realtime at least with everything slowed down, just observing his surroundings and himself. He would have to avoid doing that in the future.
Jake sat down to meditate a bit more, getting up every hour to consume a potion and do a light amount of practice with his new skill. He instantly discovered a few very interesting things he couldn’t wait to test out in live combat.
Overall? The skill felt awesome, and he had a feeling it had great future potential. Now he only needed a good fight to truly test it out.
Luckily, he had a feeling he would soon get one.
With around twenty hours of the Treasure Hunt remaining, Jake left the water Vault through a teleportation circle in the center of the room, ready for the final stage of the Treasure Hunt.