Villy, you fucking troll, Jake cursed as he finally found the problem. Holy fucking shit, did he feel like beating that snake god up with a tire iron. Jake had no damn clue how long he had been sitting there; all he knew was that the bastard had fooled him.

Five types of Identify. Race, profession, class, level of Blessing, and general power level. This was what Villy had said the telescopes and mirrors were enchanted to Identify. There were a total of thirty-seven-hundred and seventy-two mirrors and fifteen-hundred and ninety-eight telescopes present. Jake had felt them all repeatedly Identify him in waves about once every second. Not all of one type at the same time, but totally mixed up, and he was pretty sure that the exact same set of mirrors and telescopes had not Identified him twice during the entire training session.

How long it had taken till he began to differentiate between them was unknown… but it felt like months. Maybe a year? He didn’t know and hadn’t spared the brainpower to think about it.

After he could differentiate, he began discovering what type did what. He began labeling all mirrors and telescopes with their respective versions and tested them. At some point, Jake had marked all the ones he believed Identified race, and to his amazement, all of them lit up and correctly displayed their results.

After that, he moved on and found that Blessing was the second easiest for him to detect. He had quickly labeled all of them as he felt the faint differences between each Identify. Not all of them were identical, but Jake began to see patterns in where they hit the Shroud and how it “poked” his soul if that was the correct thing to call it.

It took him a while longer to nail down profession and class as they felt very similar. It was difficult to truly differentiate them, and at some point, Jake even began to believe they were the same, but he intuitively knew that wasn’t true. So he kept trying until finally, he found something. It was a faint difference, but once he felt it, he focused on it like a bloodhound and explored it until he got results.

With time, he got all of them labeled too. So now he just needed to mark all of the rest of the mirrors and telescopes with the general level of power identification, right? Wrong. He had done that, and it had not worked, which made Jake realize he felt there was a difference between some of the final Identify items.

Okay, that actually made sense, as it would trivialize this last part if they were all the same. Jake began focusing on different ones, until he felt one he was certain was just a normal Identify. Right, so some of them were just there to mess with him and make him have to actually find the last type, right?

Wrong again.

Because there were more types. The thing is, Jake had a hard time nailing it down. He also took note that nearly forty percent of the mirrors and telescopes were still unmarked, even if it should only be twenty if there were five types. It was a possibility there were just a lot of general identification ones, though… that seemed improbable.

Jake felt frustration as time passed, and he soon noticed a flaw in his approach. What he did only worked if he knew what was trying to Identify him. What was behind it - the intent. But could he do that in the real world? What if he modified his Shroud to only hide him from known types of Identify, and he met someone with an unknown one?

But… how could he protect himself from something he didn’t know what was? How could he find out what the Identify was looking for? Before, he had figured out what kind of feeling the items gave, labeled them according to those feeling, and been right, but that had clearly been the wrong way to go about it.

Villy had baited Jake into thinking this was the way to go by telling him what to find… when the truth was that the actual hard part of this training was for himself to find out what it was. The entire setup had been a red herring.

Well… not entirely. For there were still patterns. That is when Jake had the realization.

Don’t try to find out what the skill is looking for… just what parts of the Shroud are engaged when Identify comes.

Rather than find out what the Shroud was blocking and what the Identify was doing or looking for… Jake would just make up his own response to anything triggering the patterns stemming from an attempted Identity.

He would simulate the Identify on his end, so it got the result he wanted no matter what skill was used… no, he would modify it a little to tailor the responses to the most obvious kinds. The unknown one would just get race every time, maybe? He wasn’t quite sure yet, but he wanted to try this different approach.

Like weaving a tapestry, Jake began to engage the Shroud. He had truly become able to both feel and, in many ways, interact with the divine skill over this entire training excursion. He began mixing and shifting the skill as it responded to his will. He did not truly know what he was doing; he just went by feel. When he went wrong, it felt wrong. When he did something right, his intuition told him he was on the right track. All of this was due to the thousands of Identify’s constantly making him aware of if his manipulation had any effect. Meanwhile, he was trying to create a model of how it worked in his head. How he wanted it to work.

This has to be right, Jake thought as he focused everything he had, time not being a factor.

Yeah, it was not really at all what Vilastromoz had planned on him doing. He had expected Jake to begin to recognize the incoming signals and begin to slowly adapt his Shroud to block all of them one-by-one until he discovered the type the “hidden” Identify was. Or at least for him to realize that the hidden one was touching on many of the same concepts as the one regarding total power. The last ones analyzed what affinities someone was skilled in along with just general Identification ones, and Vilastromoz was surprised Jake hadn’t realized that.

He watched on as Jake began manipulating the Shroud in unexpected ways. Ways that were originally meant to be the third phase of this training session, after Jake had recognized the last kind of Identify. If he did that, Jake should be able to correctly detect new kinds on the fly, too, by recognizing what parts of the Shroud corresponded to his own Records.

What Jake was doing was instead modifying not the viewable information but scrambling it on the fly whenever he was Identified. It was in some ways a safer method as it was more adaptable and could avoid someone with a really fringe set of skills to figure out Jake’s real information, but on the other hand, it was incredibly risky and required him to almost react instinctua-

Ah, the Viper suddenly thought. Maybe that can work for him?

It was interesting to see the mortal skip, not just one step, but two.

A simplified metaphor for what he was doing would be someone trying to look at a piece of paper with Identify through a window that is the soul. When using Identify, the person is looking at a specific portion of the paper to get some information.

Shroud adds a layer to that window between the paper and the one using Identify, and by default, it is designed to just make it one-way, effectively blocking all forms of Identify as the information given makes no sense. If a laser is shined through one-way glass, it won’t bounce back out, after all.

Vilastromoz had planned for Jake to make a portion of the window see-through. That was the first part of training. The second would be to more or less put a fake piece of paper on top of the real one with the information Jake wanted to give. That was meant to be the second part.

What he had done was skip that step. Instead, he would change parts of the window itself. He would make it distort what one saw through it, scramble the letters, and make the other person see a fake image. They were looking at the actual paper, but what their skill registered would be fake.

This method was, as said, better. It could only work due to Identify taking a moment to work – even for gods – due to the innate resistance every living being had to any kind of Record-scrying due to their Truesouls. The problem was, as also mentioned before, that one had to adapt this window as Identify came in, only having this brief moment to tailor a response.

In the future, this was akin to what Vilastromoz would have Jake do… but he had not expected him to learn it already. Moreover, as long as he succeeded…

System assistance will take over and automate the process.

Vilastromoz smiled. If he had told Jake to do this, there is no way the system would offer any assistance… it just worked like that. Personal realizations led to far more Records and even assistance than if someone told you what to do. This is also why the Viper never told Jake what he had to do, only what general goal he had to strive towards.

Because it could lead to happy little accidents like this.

The only minor problem was… that five-year timetable?

Yeah, that had to get pushed a little.

Miranda and Reika sat in the office as Lillian brought in some ordered food before leaving the two women to discuss. In truth, this was the first time it was just the two of them together, as all other get-togethers had been in larger settings or gatherings.

The reason was that this meeting was more of a private nature. Previously it had all been about the constructed compound or the procurement of crafting materials and stuff like that, but this time Reika had come to her with questions not fit for a meeting.

“Internal discussions have been had among the members of the Noboru clan, and an unsettling question has begun to emerge the more time we spend here… what are the plans for Haven in the long term?” Reika asked as she took a sip of her tea, not touching the food quite yet.

“In what capacity?” Miranda asked, having kind of expected this day to come. She was actually surprised it had taken them this long to bring up the perceived issue.

She had to admit, Haven did seem directionless. They were not expanding actively, weren’t recruiting powerful elites or individuals with nobility titles. They weren’t even making true alliances. They just made non-aggression agreements with everyone. Their only true allies were forged due to the relationship between Jake and another city owner and Sylphie just making friends, but even that was not a true alliance. Just personal friendships.

“What does Haven strive to be in a year? Ten? What will happen as all the other factions expand their territory, claim control of more dungeons, natural resources, and influence over the populace? Haven is currently growing, but that is only due to refugees still coming. What happens when that stops? Just natural growth?” Reika asked.

Miranda was a bit surprised at the level of thought the younger woman had put into Haven’s current situation, but she seemed to be misunderstanding something.

“I find it interesting you ask what we strive to be, almost as if Haven requires change,” Miranda answered, having given this subject much thought before.

“Does it not?” Reika asked, raising an eyebrow. “The Court of Shadows, Holy Church, Risen, Valhal, my clan, as well as dozens of smaller factions and alliances are expanding every day. They are growing in influence while Haven remains stale. If this continues, it will be left in the dust.”

Miranda just sighed. “This city belongs to Lord Thayne… Jake. I am only in charge of managing it and leading it in a direction that is to his preference, nothing more, nothing less. While I certainly take some liberties, I am also fully aware that this place only exists because of him and will cease to exist without him. At least without him, it truly would just be left in the dust.”

“I do understand that,” Reika answered in understanding. “But… I say this with the best intentions at heart… Jake is a bit of a moron when it comes to anything related to managing a city, much less an entire faction. Doing things his way is questionable at best.”

Laughing a bit, Miranda wholeheartedly agreed, but she also had a bit of a different outlook due to having more context and insight into the multiverse. “That may be so, but ultimately, that is not for me to question. As long as Jake is here, Haven will stand. As long as Jake is here, Haven will be powerful. Power is not necessarily measured by size. I am certain that with the Sword Saint in your clan, you understand the influence a single outstanding individual can have?”

“Naturally, but that outstanding individual still requires a support-base. Jake can’t go around collecting every metal he needs himself, grow all of his herbs, take care of his home, do all of the managerial tasks. Much less would he want to. Without proper territory, how do you plan on supporting his growth?” Reika asked pointedly.

“A very valid question, but you forget one thing. Where is Jake right now?”

“He left for something training-related with his Patron god,” Reika answered as Miranda saw a sliver of understanding suddenly appear on the other woman’s face.

“He went to the Order of the Malefic Viper. On Primordial 4, a Great Planet larger than I think any of us can even comprehend. You must remember, Jake doesn’t need Haven for support. Jake doesn’t need any of us to grow in power. He has the backing of an Order with age spanning back to nearly the beginning of the multiverse, able to throw more resources at the Chosen of their Patron god than Earth cumulatively has without batting an eye,” Miranda began.

“No, what Jake needs on Earth isn’t a huge support network. He needs a base. A place to rest and operate out of. That is the true role of Haven. My job is not to create a major faction vying for control of the planet, but to build a home he bothers coming back to.”

Reika stared a bit as she considered her words before asking. “So you see yourself as nothing more than a custodian?”

Miranda shook her head again. “I am not sure there is a word for it. I just know that I am the city leader of Haven and resident Verdant Witch.”

“That brings me to my second question, which seems more pertinent now than before. What are the intentions of the Patrons gods you two serve towards Earth? The Court, Church, and every other faction are making their cities outposts of their larger organization. Will Haven be the same? A branch of the Order of the Malefic Viper?” the young lady of the Noboru clan asked. Very much straight to the point, which Miranda appreciated.

“First of all, a bit of a misunderstanding. Jake isn’t really serving anyone, and neither am I solely serving my Patron gods. Jake is still my superior above even the gods, and from my understanding, the relationship between Jake and the Malefic One is far from one of servitude. It is difficult to understand or explain,” Miranda answered, clarifying something she felt like she had done more times than she could even remember to other officials and traders.

“Secondly, no, there are no plans to make Haven linked to the Order more than is unavoidable. This is why the temple allows any god to display a statue there as long as they follow our rules. We are aiming more to be a truly neutral force that also happens to have a very powerful backer. Something that is likely a necessity to stay neutral, to begin with.”

“I see,” Reika answered. “You are blessed by the Witches of the Verdant Lagoon, correct?”

Miranda nodded in confirmation.

“And to my understanding, the witches serve the Malefic Viper and the Order. Does that effectively make you Jake’s witch to the Viper’s Witches?”

“You can see it like that,” Miranda answered. That was also how her Patron gods had phrased it to h-

“Does that mean you also serve Jake’s “other” needs?” Reika asked, clearly teasing.

“No,” Miranda quickly clarified. “He is my employer. Don’t get it twisted.”

“You sure? There are rumors…”

“Oh, I know, I heard them. Something about the young lady of the Noboru clan spending all day down in the alchemy laboratory together with Lord Thayne,” Miranda teased back.

Reika was about to protest, but she just shook her head instead. “Fine, fine. Anyway, when will he be back? He has been gone for what, soon one and a half months?”

“I have no idea. All I know is that Jake is doing some important training and to not disturb him,” Miranda answered with a sigh.

The witches wouldn’t even give any details, which Miranda suspected wasn’t because they didn’t want to tell her. They just genuinely didn’t know what Jake was up to either, much less when he would return.

A note from Zogarth

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