“Huh. They changed it again,” Ilkes said as he took the booklet Sylver had been holding and flipped through it.
“How are you feeling?” Sylver asked as he sat up in his seat and made himself a leg again.
It was a waste of mana when he was sitting down, but he didn’t like the way the nurses that looked after Ilkes looked at him with pity in their eyes. And while he doubted Ilkes would feel anything even close to pity when looking at him, he wanted to make it a habit while he still only had one leg.
“Well, other than the emotional damage of having someone literally grab my fucking heart with their fucking hand, I’m perfectly fine. The healer said you missed every single vein and artery, and somehow more or less slipped in between the muscle fibers. He said if he hadn’t seen your hand disappear into my god damn armpit, he would have thought it was an odd surgical procedure,” Ilkes said, as he continued looking through the booklet.
“Take it as a sign of respect. I couldn’t think of another way of getting you to surrender, between that fancy armor and the fire, I didn’t have a whole lot of options,” Sylver explained, as Ilkes held the book open at one specific page and read through it.
“I completely understand. I’m not taking this personally, but I’ve been in a few fights over my life, and this was the first time I felt genuine terror. If it weren’t for the fact that I don’t eat before a fight for this exact reason, I’m all but certain I would have shit myself. I’ve had my intestines ripped out of me, but this was like…” Ilkes paused as he tried to think of a way to explain the feeling.
“If it makes you feel any better, the next time we fight I’m just going to tap you on the helmet and you’ll fall unconscious,” Sylver offered in the slightly awkward silence.
“One thing I can say for certain is that we’re never going to fight again. Our styles don’t match,” Ilkes explained.
“How so? We’re both more or less close-quarter fighters, if I had something a little more useful than two sticks, I would just disarm you and go from there,” Sylver said.
“Not that. We’re both friendly and respectful, it doesn’t work well long term. Because half the crowd will feel bad if I lose, and the other half will feel bad if you lose. What you want is friendly versus unfriendly, so most of the crowd is cheering for you to defeat the asshole you’re fighting against,” Ilkes explained. He finished reading the page he was reading and handed the booklet back to Sylver.
“So I just need to keep my fingers crossed my opponents will all be assholes? How many are there anyway?” Sylver asked.
“Total people competing in the tower? Hmm… Below 10,000 that’s for certain. The number fluctuates a lot considering how many people disappear in the dungeons for months on end. There’s also a number that can only handle one fight every other month, or those that only fight under very specific conditions,” Ilkes explained, as Sylver flipped back to the page he’d been on before Ilkes woke up.
They were both currently in a medium-sized room that was meant to be a place for fighters to sleep off their injuries and recover. The healer who treated Ilkes had offered Sylver his services for 4,000 cuts, but Sylver just bought a few bandages and an ointment meant for burns.
Other than some mangling of the skin on his right hand, and some light scorch marks, Sylver was perfectly fine. His skin had already peeled off and he expected that he would be back to normal within a couple of hours. Ilkes’ fire was hot and charged with a lot of positive energy, but Sylver had a film of [Coat Of Carrion] all over his body, and it had taken the brunt of the damage.
“A lot of this is hush-hush information, so I’m going to have to trust that you’ll keep it to yourself,” Ilkes said.
“Is that why Iris wouldn’t tell me anything?” Sylver asked.
“You weren’t registered as a tower climber. There’s quite a bit of… shall we say misdirection when it comes to what the general public is aware of. On the surface, the whole thing is just a bunch of grizzly men punching each other in the face to find out who’s the strongest. And there absolutely are a large number of climbers who are doing just that. But I am what you would call a soft climber,” Ilkes explained.
Sylver flipped back to the booklet’s index and saw the word referencing page 47.
“The gist of it is that I do this as a job. Win or lose, I get paid. I never enter into a deathmatch, and I’m careful never to fight anyone I feel is unhinged enough to get too into it and kill me. Frankly speaking, if I had seen you reach through someone’s ribcage and squeeze their heart, I would never have fought you,” Ilkes explained.
“I did say I was a monster,” Sylver offered.
“You did; but you didn’t growl or bark at me, so I hoped it was a bluff. Your status sheet also said that you were heavily injured, missing an arm, a leg, an eye, and with an odd infection in your blood. My thought process was that I would rough you up a little, and then very chivalrously accept your surrender and maybe… I dunno… you looked so malnourished I didn’t think you were a very good hunter,” Ilkes explained.
“I prefer to think of myself as lean,” Sylver said.
“I meant no offense by it. I imagine your unique appearance will win you a lot of women as fans. Are your nails painted or are those bruises?” Ilkes asked.
“Side effect of a perk. As are my eyes. Or eye in this case,” Sylver answered.
“Must be a really good perk if it comes with such a side effect. Might go well with the whole silver theme too. You usually use a spear, right? I know a technician that might be able to plate it in chrome for you,” Ilkes said.
“Speaking of, the woman in red mentioned I could bring my own weapons. How does that work with the spinning wheel thing?” Sylver asked.
“There are different kinds of fights inside the tower. Most of them are organized weeks or months in advance. Your sponsor will meet with another fighter’s sponsor and they’ll agree on terms for the fight. Sometimes they have the wheel but rig it so it gives you the weapon you want, sometimes they don’t bother and both fighters just walk in holding their weapons in hand,” Ilkes explained.
“I see… You mentioned being a soft climber?” Sylver asked.
Ilkes sat up a little higher in the bed he was currently laying in and used the small remote on his right side to move his torso into a sitting position.
“It’s not something you should ever bring up in conversation with anybody. Normally our positions would be reversed and I would be explaining the unspoken rules while you were in bed recovering from your injuries. Uh… you need to have a certain attitude if you plan on fighting in the tower,” Ilkes explained.
“Like what?” Sylver asked.
“It differs between soft and hard climbers. With the hard ones you can pretty much do whatever you want because they’ll also be doing whatever they want. With them, the only rule they follow is that they won’t kill you. But they’ll cripple you if they get the chance, and they go out of their way to hurt you. It isn’t a game for them, it’s a fight to the death, without the death,” Ilkes explained.
“How do you tell the hard climbers apart from the soft climbers?”
“Your sponsor will tell you. Or until you find one, ask just about any climber that looks friendly and they’ll tell you. But the rule of thumb is that if someone reeks of sweat, piss, and blood, they’re a hard climber. Their weapons will look well used, and they’ll likely be growling or barking at you like a dog,” Ilkes said.
“Why? Are hard climbers all insane or something?”
“Not insane, but they’re inside the tower for one reason only. Reaching the top. They don’t give a shit about anything else. Whether a fight is entertaining, whether their opponent will be able to fight afterward, they treat each fight as if it will result in their death if they lose. A very surprising number of them are practicing cannibals, but you didn’t hear that from me,” Ilkes said.
“Why not… Why are they still in the Garden then?”
“Because in their defense they’re the ones using the tower as it is intended. All this sponsor stuff, advertising deals, and everything that us soft climbers consider to be our bread and butter, they consider to be a mockery of this temple devoted to blood sport. They don’t break any rules, so there isn’t much the Garden can do about them. Aside from being rude, they’re civil whenever they leave the tower and need something,” Ilkes explained.
“I see, so you’re essentially two different businesses sharing the same space,” Sylver said.
“More or less. If you’re planning on earning a name for yourself, you’ll have to fight them a few times. If you manage to win, I very strongly recommend crippling them as much as possible. Maybe reach into their chest and squeeze their heart, I know a couple that wouldn’t ever mentally recover from that. The less hard climbers there are, the safer us soft climbers are,” Ilkes said with a smile.
“Do you want me to apologize for squeezing your heart?” Sylver offered.
“What for? Like you said I was such a tough opponent you couldn’t think of a better strategy. But… it is customary for the climber that won to buy the defeated one a drink,” Ilkes said.
“Are you going to be ok? They gave you 5 different healing potions,” Sylver asked.
Ilkes started pulling at the odd-shaped mesh net that covered his left shoulder and armpit, where Sylver had shoved his hand through.
“I’ll be fine. I have a very special perk that lets me shrug off most wounds in under a day. Not to mention you didn’t even do all that much damage if I hadn’t freaked out at having my heart being squeezed, I would have carried on fighting,” Ilkes explained, as Sylver watched him peel the mesh off and saw tiny strands of white fabric had embedded themselves underneath his skin and were now slowly coming out.
“Here let me, you’re going to rip everything open,” Sylver said as he stood up and very gently helped remove the mesh.
Mango-flavored wine had a very strange aftertaste. Not unpleasant, but unsettling in a certain sense of the word, even if Sylver couldn’t put it into words.
Ilkes was very helpful in explaining the various functions and factions within the tower, even if most of it were rumors and personal opinions.
The gist of it was, as long as Sylver kept winning, there wasn’t much need to worry about the details. Sylver didn’t know what the highest level in the tower was, but frankly, it didn’t matter too much.
Sylver usually fought while conserving his mana, in the event he had to fight another enemy right after defeating the current one. If a fight was over and done with once Sylver’s only opponent was unconscious or had surrendered, he wouldn’t need to be as careful.
But he also didn’t think it would be wise to only rely on [Coat Of Carrion] and [Dead Dominion]. With Ilkes it worked out well because he didn’t know what Sylver could or would do. After a few more fights he would start running into the issue of his opponents being ready for him.
If he had several possible moves to make, the problem would still ultimately be there, but no one can prepare for everything. But revealing his skills, perks, and magical knowledge came with the danger of revealing himself to be a larger threat than should be possible in this realm.
Sylver couldn’t ask directly, but from the way Ilkes spoke, he wasn’t the only person in the Garden who could use dark magic. But when it came to being undead, having shades, and walking around with runes in your pocket, Sylver wasn’t sure how well the information would be received by the Garden.
The other worrying thing was that the Spring that had gone with the shade-like monster from last night, wasn’t back yet. The Spring in Sylver’s shadow didn’t complain about the odd feeling of weakness because he knew there wasn’t anything to do but wait. Sylver could empower him, sure, and bring him back to his normal level of strength, but it wasn’t the same.
“Grant?” Sylver said as he lifted the pillow off his face and got up from the sofa he was resting on. Grant looked up at him from the kitchen table, where he was doing something on his laptop.
“Something wrong?” Grant asked.
“Everything is fine. But would you please go upstairs, go to the bathroom, and lay down as flat as you can inside the bathtub?” Sylver asked, as he very carefully pulled the curtains closed over the two windows on either side of the door and opened the fridge to allow the [Coat Of Carrion] inside to escape and wrap around his leg.
“Why? What’s going on?” Grant asked, as he closed his laptop and stood up from his seat but didn’t move any further. Sylver walked over to the area where Iris usually delivered his purchases.
“I am about to be attacked, and I would like you to be somewhere I can easily reinforce so you’re not hit by an unlucky bullet. Iris, could I buy 4 level IV ballistic shields, please? The one I had bookmarked, model number 3822,” Sylver asked.
“I can help you. Shoot them from the roof or-”
“Grant, this is only a precaution, everything is perfectly fine and under control. I don’t stay and fight when I think I’m going to lose, that’s not who I am. Now would you please do as I say and get in the bathtub?” Sylver asked, as the first large square-shaped shield came out of the wall and Sylver moved it out of the way so the next could come out.
It was about 2 heads shorter than Sylver in length and was a little wider than Sylver’s shoulders were.
“Grant, I need you to trust that I know what I’m doing. We can argue about this later when the group of 30 people heading towards us are all missing an eye and had their very large guns taken away from them. Although I might break a few arms while I’m at it, I haven’t decided yet,” Sylver explained, as he pulled one shield and then another out of the wall.
Grant made a sound usually reserved for very young children as Sylver turned and looked at him. He grabbed his box of tools, his laptop under his armpit, and he very quickly made his way up the stairs and lay down in the empty bathtub.
Two ballistic shields coated in thin red gunk floated after him and one forced itself under the empty space of the small bathtub, while the other stuck itself on the side.
Thin tendrils of red wrapped themselves around the bathtub and tightened themselves in place, to stop either shield from moving.
Sylver decided on the spot that he didn’t care too much if the Garden was aware he could make more [Coat Of Carrion] from organic matter, as he opened the freezer and turned all the meat inside into more flowing red gore. He was very careful as he summoned more from his [Bound Bones] storage and mixed bone fragments into the bright red liquid.
Sylver stomped on the two shields that had remained and broke the handles off them. The small reduction in weight wasn’t going to make a huge difference, but every little bit helped. He gave [Coat Of Carrion] as much time as he could allow to let it soak as deeply as possible into the shields, as Sylver made them float up from the floor and had them follow him out of the door.
Unsurprisingly the street was completely empty. Almost like someone had warned Sylver’s neighbors to spend the night somewhere else.
The group of 30, now 41, were readying their guns and weapons while they waited.
Ilkes had let it slip as part of some joke Sylver only understood afterward.
As it turned out, the mages of this realm relied on the positively charged sunlight for their mana. Not just their mana, apparently it was uncommon that a mage could use magic without standing under direct sunlight.
It wasn’t so uncommon as to be considered impossible or “otherworldly” but Sylver would need to be careful not to appear more powerful during the night than during the day.
There was a special drug that allowed them to use magic while in the dark, but it was expensive and came with several very unfortunate side effects. And while Ilkes didn’t say so, Sylver was all but certain he could guess where exactly this drug was injected.
As Sylver opened the door and adjusted his new dark blue tracksuit, he wondered if he would be able to conduct a vivisection on one of these attackers without accidentally killing them in the process. He’d learned a fair bit from sending mana pulses through Grant under the guise of checking that his nose and leg were healing fine, but there was only so much he could learn without cutting him open.
The small Iris Sylver carried in his pocket made a noise, as did the Iris hanging on the wall, and his original Iris that he had left on his bed upstairs. A small tendril escaped from Grant’s bulletproof cocoon and pulled the tablet into the bathtub and out of harm’s way.
Sylver sat down on the steps outside his home as the door locked behind him. He stretched his leg out, rolled his shoulders, cracked his neck, and silently yawned as the glass roof slowly turned darker and darker.
Sylver reached into his jacket pocket and fiddled with the smoke bomb before he managed to get it to work, and used a small amount of [Coat Of Carrion] to float it into the abandoned building opposite his house, and very gently forced the smoke to stay inside and build up.
“I don’t think there’s enough space in the fridge,” Spring said, as he informed him that the group of 41 had gained 10 more members. Only 2 of them had trouble with their gun, due to their left hands not working.
“I’ll buy a new one. And we’re almost certainly going to have to move after this anyway,” Sylver countered, as he closed his eye to concentrate on making sure the hair-thin tendrils spreading out through the cobblestones that made up the street were as deep and hidden away as they could be.
Spring informed Sylver that the heavily armed men were all now heading towards him. He could always escape through the roofs, but he was a defenseless mage right now and outnumbered 51 to 2.
Not to mention, they had guns and he only had at best 4 hands with which to shoot.
Sylver looked to his right and saw the 51 men stop dead in their tracks. The smoke had built up quite well, and the two shields were hidden away on either side of the stairs Sylver was sitting on. They raised their guns and pointed them directly at Sylver, as they very slowly walked towards him.
They couldn’t heal the curse and are now going to threaten me into removing it.
Sylver sat perfectly still as he watched them make their way over to him, and they walked right into his range. Normally Sylver was limited to 55m due to [Dead Dominion]s limit, but as long as he had a physical connection to the mass of [Coat Of Carrion] he was controlling, his range was limited only by his mana and the amount of material he had to work with.
It was somewhere within 150m, but it would increase as Sylver used it more. The skill was one thing, but the custom spell Sylver had created from Bruno’s notes was still being tinkered with and worked on.
“Are you Tod?” one of the men holding a gun that had 2 very long firing cylinders asked.
A shotgun, Sylver had to guess, given that Sylver hadn’t yet familiarized himself with all the various types of weapons available for purchase.
“No, I’m the other bald and pale man that’s missing an arm, a leg, an eye, and is living in this house in the blue district,” Sylver taunted. To his credit, the man pointing the gun towards Sylver’s face only nodded.
“You are going to give back the eyes and you’re going to undo whatever curse you placed on our people,” the man said.
[Elf (Soldier+Marauder) – 59]
“Our people meaning Chen’s? Are all of you lot working for Burts or Lokke?” Sylver asked.
He continued to sit where he was, even as the small group surrounded him and were still pointing a gun in his general direction. Sylver heard the sound he now understood meant a gun was being “cocked”.
“He’s too calm” someone incredibly intelligent and perceptive in the armed crowd whispered to someone else and was promptly ignored.
Sylver used [Appraisal] on everyone in the group but no one was above level 70. Allegedly the leaders were all at least level 150. If Burts of Lokke or one of the other leaders was here, he’d figure it out soon enough anyway.
Sylver could already tell his paralysis curse wouldn’t work on a couple of them. It’s a lucky thing he had expected this.
“You get one, and only one chance to surrender,” the same man said. Sylver put a little effort into looking at him and got around his face blindness.
The man was wearing a black bowler hat, had a gold tooth, his left ear was pierced with a blue sapphire gem, and he wore a three-piece suit that was a distasteful dark red color.
“Alright. I know when I’m defeated. But first, I have just one question,” Sylver said. He saw the man he had decided was the leader raise both eyebrows, as his finger moved from being near the trigger of the gun to sitting right on it.
“What?” the man asked.
“What’s that behind you?” Sylver asked.
He didn’t see who turned around and who didn’t as the door on the building opposite Sylver’s opened wide and filled up the entire alleyway with blinding white smoke.