It was coming from the walls!

Mana seeped into the chamber passively, as the pylons also began giving off a bit of pure mana. The mana coming from the walls seemed harmless at first and began interacting with what the pylons gave off, mixing with it.

Nothing was absorbed, but Jake exerted his will as he poured some of the mana from the walls into the pylons and saw it be successfully absorbed. He also tried to pour a bit of his own mana in and found that successful. The problem was that by his rough estimates, he would only be able to fill maybe one pylon with his entire mana pool.

He began directing the energy coming from the walls, but a new type soon came. A small stream of dark mana suddenly invaded the room and went straight for one of the pylons. Jake instantly took hold of it and directed it away, as it just floated in the outer parts of the room.

Then came fire, water, and even just pure light mana. Some affinities were difficult for Jake, especially the light mana, but he managed that by encapsulating it in stable arcane mana, really making use of his own affinity. The good thing about his stable mana was that it didn’t react with anything, so there was no loss in energy.

At some point, Jake had taken a seat as he entered meditation. Relying on only his Sphere of Perception and Sense of the Malefic Viper, he took charge of the room as more and more changes happened.

One of the pylons turned red as the pure mana around it no longer worked to restore but destroyed it instead. It now needed fire mana as Jake took the streams he had been keeping away and infused them into the pylon.

Another one turned black as it wanted dark mana, another began glowing as it wanted light mana, and the final one turned green as it wanted nature mana. Jake swiftly took charge as every bit of mana within the room remained under his control, but the issue was that more entered than the pylons could absorb, making the density increase for every second.

As time passed, the pylons also shifted between affinities, and more difficult types entered. Soon time affinity mana came, which was tricky as hell to control, space mana seeped in, which Jake found a bit easier, while life and death mana both felt incredibly resilient to all control, almost as if they had a will of their own to resist.

More exotic mana also entered, a lot of which he didn’t recognize, but luckily Sagacity and Sense made him aware of at least how they worked. Some he did recognize, like Myst mana, Storm mana, and other merged elements, but some were just out there, like one that seemed to make things lose their color and be weakened and another that kept splitting itself up into smaller streams that then merged and split again without warning.

But… no matter what happened, Jake remained in control. Jake was overqualified with nearly ten thousand Perception and a test no-doubt designed to be based on his level. When it came to applying his Willpower, Jake also wasn’t a slouch.

Over an hour in, and Jake felt he was soon done as the difficulty kept climbing. More and more mana came in a constant stream. The entire room looked like a mix of colors, fire, solid boxes of arcane mana, streams of glowing mana running in currents around the perimeter of the chamber, and so much more.

At this point, Jake felt himself begin to be faintly challenged, and remaining in control of all the streams seemed impossible… so he kicked it up a notch. Pride of the Malefic Viper activated as Jake’s presence blanketed the entire chamber, and everything came under his vice-grip of will once more.

On a side note, Jake had tried to use Arcane Awakening during the beginning to try and remain in control but found it actually made things harder. It was because of something the platform beneath him did that forced Jake to manually control the skill, making the usual system assistance that trivialized keeping it active disappear. Not that he was certain using it would be a good idea anyway due to the fact that it made all his energy a bit more volatile.

He did use his arcane affinity a lot, though. It was just better pure mana and allowed him to more easily direct the mana where he wanted it to go and isolate energies he wanted to put on hold until needed. In the end, Jake had nearly repaired all the pylons without allowing any noticeable damage to any of them.

As he thought it was about over, he felt a pulse.

From everywhere, a wave of pure destructive energy came, aimed straight for the pylons. It managed to destroy a bit of the mana Jake was controlling as it approached the damn crystals he had worked so hard on repairing.

Oh no, you fucking don’t!

Pride activated at full power as his own mana was summoned into the room. Barriers sectioned off all the mana as he sent out a counter-wave of destructive arcane mana, utterly destroying the wave from the room. A second later, a second pulse came, but it barely had time to enter before it too faced destruction.

A few more pulses came, but some of them were of beneficial energy too, which Jake quickly noticed and chose not to destroy. This final phase continued a bit longer, until finally, the last pylon was fully repaired, and all four of them hummed to life.

The projection appeared once more inside the room and waved his hand as all the pylons disappeared.

”I must say, we expected this test to be easy for you, not trivial,” the projection said as he shook his head.

Jake looked up at the guy and had to admit… that had been a lot easier than expected? He maybe had a few slip-ups and had a bit of energy unintentionally destroyed here and there, but it wasn’t that bad. Overall he wouldn’t call it trivial, but it definitely hadn’t been overly challenging either. Oh, but it had been kinda fun.

”Your level of energy control is… well, no comment on it really. Whatever you are doing, keep doing that. I do have some questions about the mana you used, though. It was quite an interesting one, so I wonder where you obtained it?” the projection asked.

”It’s my arcane affinity,” Jake answered.

”An arcane affinity? At D-grade?” the projection frowned.

”Yeah, I got it in E-grade, though,” Jake explained.

The projection frowned more. ”While it is a simple affinity, the fact it taps into the concepts of-”

He suddenly just stopped as the scalekin’s eyes opened wide. A moment passed before the projection focused again and looked at Jake. ”Wait here for one moment.”

With that, the projection disappeared, leaving Jake alone sitting on the platform.

Jake looked confused but just shrugged. ”Did kind of want a break to regenerate anyway.”

He took out a potion and chugged it as he entered meditation again, wondering what had happened.

Probably Villy… definitely Villy.

The scalekin projection appeared in the chamber once more as all the other judges regarded him.

”What’s the hold-up? Did something happen?” another projection asked.

”By direct order of the Malefic One, we are to not include any in-depth details related to the arcane affinity in the final report, and overall strip the report of all information given by dungeon-assisted tools,” the scalekin projection said.

The others looked at him with confusion for a moment before one asked: ”Are we to change anything else in the tests?”

”No,” the original projection shook his head. ”We are to proceed as usual but keep certain elements ambiguous or hidden once done. It will not affect the final score anyway as he got the highest mark on the test.”

“What is his relation to the-“

“Enough,” the scalekin said. “We have a job, so do that job. Treat him like any other and merely ensure certain things are kept confidential. There are also some other minor edits to be made, but we continue as usual for now.”

The scalekin said this as he prepared to head back to the testee, but he couldn’t help but wonder what had happened. He had felt the attention of the Malefic One on him. He had been placed in the dungeon since the second Era, and when the Viper’s presence descended, the time difference also dawned on him.

More than ninety Eras had passed. It was an unimaginable long time… but not his to ponder on. In the real world, he was already long dead, and no matter how many Eras passed, he would do as ordered. No, the reason why he was a bit shook was due to feeling the presence of the Viper gave him. He had felt it before when he volunteered to leave a projection in the dungeon, and he had interacted with the Malefic One several times before, but the difference between then and now was… intense.

The Viper of the ninety-third Era was far calmer. Collected. Moreover, he had felt genuine interest and even a trace of care from his Patron god. Something the Viper certainly never possessed back then. But more so than anything, his power had grown to entirely new levels, as he no doubt had become more powerful in every way.

The scalekin did not share his thoughts with the other projections in the council but kept it all to himself. Primarily because his thoughts could be interpreted as heretical, but also because he knew it would impact how the others evaluated the remaining tests.

Also… would they not simply make fun of his theory that the Malefic One saw a D-grade human as someone worthy of emotional investment? The sentiment was preposterous just thinking about it.

Jake opened his eyes as the projection appeared again.

“Hey, still need a bit to regenerate resources,” Jake said as he healed up. He didn’t ask any questions, and the look in the projection’s eyes was the same as before, meaning that even if Jake’s “cover” had been blown, the projection kept his cool.

The projection nodded. “That is fine. While we wait, we can go over the next phase. The following three tests will be voluntarily selected based on your own specializations. Identification of herbs, knowledge of crafting methods and recipes, and energy control are all the fundamental tests, while these three will be more specialized. So tell me, what do you have experience in?”

“Uhm, what kind of specializations? Like transmutation or something?” Jake asked.

“That is indeed one option. Transmutation, arrays, magic circles, potioneering, poison concoction, flasks, elixirs, body augmentation, herb grafting, growing, cultivation, perhaps something within the field of geology, just to name a few of the more common examples. The subjects in question depend entirely on you,” the projection explained.

Jake considered it a bit. “Any details on the specific tasks? As with other things, my abilities are highly specialized. As an example, I can do some pretty powerful transmutations, but only really do it properly with one affinity… that being my arcane affinity.”

”I cannot give too many details, but both scope and depth in your skills matter. As for the products you craft, it honestly doesn’t matter much as it is more technique and ability we evaluate. You will be required to craft or transmute more than one thing in most tests, so simply being good at making one type of potion or poison won’t be enough.”

“Alright,” Jake said. Honestly, it only came down to the three things Jake even knew how to do. Magic circles? Eh, he was clueless for the most part, even if he had done a bit of studying recently. Elixirs, he kinda knew, but only a few. Anything gardening-related he knew nothing about. Geology? Was that even real alchemy?

“I choose poison concocting, potion brewing, and transmutations,” Jake answered.

“Which one do you wish to start with?” the projection asked.

“Doesn’t matter, honestly,” Jake said, shaking his head.

“Very well. Very standard choices, which is perhaps for the best. Tell me when you are ready, and we will begin with poison concoction,” the projection nodded as the scalekin disappeared again.

Jake just closed his eyes and meditated for a while.

Once he felt ready, he opened them again. “Good to go.”

The projection appeared again. The scalekin waved his hand as a cauldron appeared.

“This test is simple and will be in three parts. The first part will last thirty minutes and is for you to simply concoct some poisons as you please. Note that the actual crafting will be significantly sped up, so be on your toes. The second part will include you being given a number of ingredients, and you are to craft as many and as powerful poisons as you can before time runs out. This part will also last half an hour. The final part will involve you being given three poisons to recreate as well as ingredients to recreate them from. This part will also last half an hour.”

Jake nodded in understanding.

“The three parts will come gauntlet-style with no resting period in between, and each part will end after thirty minutes elapse, moving onto the next part if you are done or not. Time begins when you infuse mana into the cauldron.”

Jake jumped right into it as he began the test. He crafted all his best poisons and did as many as he could. He made Necrotic Poison, Hemotoxin, Fungicide, and even the soul-destroying poison. It wasn’t much, but he felt like they were good enough. He did also do some other stuff and made some low-rarity poison he had created before, but nothing worth noting.

For the second part, Jake had been quite worried, but honestly? It had gone a lot better than expected. Jake had just relied on Identify, gut feeling, Sagacity, and Sense to pick out things he believed fit together, mixed in some blood to function as a catalyst to blend it all together, and created quite a few different poisons. All of them were worse than his Necrotic Poison, but some were pretty decent, in his opinion.

In the final part, Jake first inspected the three poisons and then consumed one of them. He absorbed the knowledge and began copying it, but the result wasn’t ideal. For the second poison, he only consumed a bit of it and kept the rest at his side as he began concocting. He added in the provided ingredients he was certain were correct and tested a bit to get it right by adding in some more maybes. In the end, he felt like he got it pretty right, but just as he was about to begin to try and recreate the third poison, the projection appeared as the cauldron and poison both disappeared.

“Time’s up,” the projection said.

Jake deflated a bit as he sat down tired on the floor. “How did I do?”

“Mixed bag. Did fine on the first part, at least in the potency of your poisons, but once more, the scope was disappointing, and it was obvious you were reaching towards the end. The second part went above expectations, but you have some habits that may need working on. Your overreliance on Blood of the Malefic Viper works fine for you, but the problem is that you inherently make poison tied to you by using your blood. It has no impact if you use the poison yourself but may be problematic for others using your products, and it also makes tracing any poison back to you easy. As for the final part… I think we both know it went rather poorly, even if the replication of the second poison went okay. Overall your score would be considered above average, though, so don’t fret.”

Nodded along, Jake agreed on most but did ask: “Can you explain a bit more of what happens when I use the blood? Why is it worse for others?”

The projection gave Jake a brief look making it clear he should really know this, but he answered anyway.

“All poisons you create with your current method may be incredibly potent if you also use them yourself, but it isn’t so if you sell or give the toxins to others. This is merely a part of the system and is theorized to be due to the Records infused in the creation being bound to you. There are also theories it is due to your Willpower coming into effect when you use self-made products yourself. Either way, reality is that any crafted tool that does damage or prevents damage is simply more potent when used by the creator. Your blood amplifies this effect further as it binds the item to you even more.”

“So… Blood makes system-fuckery worse?” Jake asked.

“Not a phrase I am familiar with, but yes, essentially. From a practical standpoint, it does make sense that a D-grade cannot kill an A-grade simply by being given poison by an S-grade, wouldn’t you say so? Or, to make an easier example, an S-grade cannot make a small explosive device that will kill anyone, but the user once used, allowing D-grades to slaughter anyone below S-grade. Perhaps it is simply the system’s way of achieving balance and not make individuals overly reliant on items. At least not items they didn’t create themselves,” the projection explained.

Jake nodded again. Made sense to him.

“Thanks for the explanation,” Jake said as he took out and chugged a potion. “Ready for the next test.”

The projection smirked. “Let’s do potion brewing next.”

A note from Zogarth

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