Things don’t turn up in this world until somebody turns them up.

Pre-Fall politician


Moore found himself in a quandary. After producing the complete build and history for his Four, his plan was a data dump. Everything he knew about the System’s skills and specializations. He even had a good idea of how to structure these lists so it would be obvious what they represented.

But such a dump could only include skills up to his view horizon. He had a handful of high-tier skills spotted “in the wild”, but nothing significant. And he already had three persons going around at level 8, which was that horizon right now. Level 9 was probably in the cards somewhere soon, given he’d seen some people with 10 at one point. Not everyone would qualify for a new skill at level 9, given how he allocated things, but even then…

He contemplated his stash of personal XP. He was now over 25500, thanks to a stray Felid next to one of the bridges over the Potomac and the few books he’d just converted into Setting Scrolls. Yet, he had no new personal ability in view… so the ×3 multiplier was a miss… but given that the Library of Congress seemed to be reasonably intact, he could expect a flood of personal XP soon. If they just converted a thousand books per day, he could count on tens of thousands of XP in a single day. Much more efficient – for him, at least – than any single fight would be.

Then he focused again on Johanna’s full descriptor, as he often did when checking what was possible.


Johanna Marcia Milton

Female human, 20 years, 3 months

Fire Shaper

Level: 7 (21000 XP needed)

221/253 mana (+29 per hour)

0 unallocated skill points

XP: 11548 + 25563

STR: 16 (2490 XP needed)

Blazing Orb (39)

AUT: 20 (1578 XP needed)

Fire Handling (67)

AGI: 16 (1879 XP needed)


PER: 15 (988 XP needed)

Mana Sight (37)

DEX: 18 (2699 XP needed)

Flaming Blade (43)

Fireball (43)

EMP: 17 (2118 XP needed)

Steam Breath (24)

Bodily immunity to fire, up to 970°F (521°C)

Detect mana flows & pools of 27.0 size or greater

Require 24% less oxygen

39% better sight


I can spend some XP. Open the horizons, just a little, he told himself.

He’d been hoarding combat XP like a miser after all. So, either Johanna or Laura to level 8, then +1 to the ones with the highest of each stat, that would increase his horizon and add dozens of new skills.

He set out on a spending spree, starting with Johanna’s level and Authority. Each would get an infusion of their primary stat, even the expensive one for Peter’s already 21 Dexterity. Then Tom for Agility – as he had the highest – and Peter for Perception, as he not only had the highest tied with Tom but the cheapest too. Then he decided to throw in a second increase on that lower stat, to bring it up a bit higher and round off the horizon. Perception was lower than the rest, but he had enough XP for the spending spree.

That’s going to refill quickly, he persuaded himself as he contemplated the few thousand points that were left.

So, what did I get?

Sorting skills by level gave him a handful of level 9 new unlocks, notably the elemental domains that he’d gotten a taste of before from a beast…


Domain of the Inferno

Requires: Authority 21/Dexterity 19/Level 9

Effective: N × Dexterity + Level (adds mana)

Passive: Grant bodily immunity to fire, up to (300 + 10×Eff) °F

Active: Surround yourself in swirling flames at (Eff/10) inches from the skin.

Active cost: 1 mana per (Eff) seconds

Fire Master

AUT 20/DEX 18/Lvl 8


Fire Shaper

AUT 17/DEX 16/Lvl 5


Steam Shaper

AUT 21/DEX 17/EMP 17/Lvl 8



AUT 16/Lvl 1



Wait, what?


A quick peek showed two new magical specializations, both requiring level 8.

You’re supposed to be at level 10! That’s what makes sense! Level 1, 5, 10, 15, or maybe 20…

He contemplated his remaining XP and then ticked up Johanna’s Agility. He would have to anyway, to grant the Cinder Circle he’d just informed her that she would get “soon”.

Sure enough, Magma Shaper and Mud Shaper immediately appeared as available specializations.

The new specializations were relatively lackluster, he decided quickly after looking through the list of associated skills. Whatever had pushed them down to level 8 – Level 8??? – at least explained the lack of the significant upgrades that had characterized the level 5 specializations.

Bullshit design.

Fire Master did increase some skills’ multipliers, but he quickly realized it only increased the pure Fire skills. Any of the hybrid elemental spells like Cinder Circle didn’t get any upgrade whatsoever compared to their Fire Shaper multiplier.

The hybrid specializations like Steam Shaper just restored the ability to use water skills that had been locked out for fire, or for some skills like Steam Breath where the multipliers between Fire and Water were different, simply used the higher of the two. There were no improved multipliers, just a greater breadth of choice.

The temptation of adding back Earthbind via the Magma Shaper was strong. But ultimately there were three reasons against it.

First, Johanna did have some Earth Shaper help now. Either Veldhuis or Wichers could provide support while teaming with her.

Second, he just told her she’d get Cinder Circle. It would be very, very confusing to have Earthbind added, removed, and re-added.

Third… well, she did have three pure fire skills, which would get a significant boost on both energy and efficiency from the Fire Master. Bigger, hotter fireballs were a thing. Mana Sight was a neutral pick, all level 8 specs equally increased its multiplier.

And, okay, four out of three, if he decided to hybridize later when the System threw him another surprise specialization step that actually improved things, it would be free of charge, rather than cost XP to change specialization tracks.

This time, I’m going to warn you just before I do it. Since your skills shut down.


Johanna Marcia Milton

Female human, 20 years, 3 months

Fire Master

Level: 8 (34000 XP needed)

53/376 mana (+29 per hour)

0 unallocated skill points

XP: 11 + 7113

STR: 16 (2490 XP needed)

Blazing Orb (40)

AUT: 21 (7989 XP needed)

Fire Handling (92)

AGI: 17 (3000 XP needed)

Cinder Circle (42)

PER: 15 (988 XP needed)

Mana Sight (53)

DEX: 18 (2699 XP needed)

Flaming Blade (62)

Fireball (62)

EMP: 17 (2118 XP needed)

Steam Breath (25)

Bodily immunity to fire up to 1220°F (660°C)

Detect mana flows & pools of 18.9 size or greater

Require 25% less oxygen

40% better sight



Yells came as Johanna found herself plunged into the darkness of the Library. She took a deep breath and reached again for the fire. The ball of fire popped again up where she’d put it before, and she breathed more freely. Then she realized that while the ball did not look larger, it was now slightly brighter.

“What happened,” Gomez asked.

She looked down at the Fire Master parchment, which was now inert in her hand. She turned the paper to show him.

“Fire… master?”

“It was active just before I lost control of the orb.”

“But now it is not lighted. Does this mean…”

“I must have it now. And it’s not the first time this happened. Back when I was training to use Flaming Blade when I switched from Shaper to Fire Shaper my Talents briefly stopped working.”

“So you just, what, changed specializations?” Gomez asked.

She raised her hand to check for confirmation.

“Bigger,” Tom said as he looked at the flame in her hand.

“Yes,” she noted.

Then she realized what the change further meant.

“And I probably lost most of my mana reserve.”

“So much for the nice mana-powered lamps,” Peter said.

“Yes, we need to leave. I can probably sustain the light for some time still, but not as long as if I had all my reserves.”

“It’s probably better if we set shop outside anyway,” Gomez noted.

Johanna didn’t even have time to stand up when Kartmann who’d come back when the light turned off startled.

“Wait? You feel higher in power now? How does that happen?”

“I just leveled? You’re sure?”

“You knew you would? Is that why you asked just a few moments ago?”

“No. But it happened anyway. The Ancient’s plans are mysterious,” she shrugged.

“And apparently, she got a new specialization in the bargain,” Gomez explained to the minotaur.

A pair of expedition members were carefully enlarging the opening of the doors as Johanna and the rest walked down the stairs from the reading room. She noticed a few others stacking chairs and furniture but stopped when she saw Ulrich checking the overturned tables.

“Wait, Ulrich? Did… you get an Artifact?”

It was the thirster’s turn to look confused.

“Not that I know. Why?”

“There is a kind of mana cloud. Very faint, but definitively there. It doesn’t look like it’s when you cast, but more like an Artifact. A very low-powered one,” she said, remembering the small stone in Elena’s room.

“And if I use a Talent?” Ulrich said, his skin turning bark-brown.

“I can’t see your Talents except for the Dark Flame…”

She stopped, realizing she was seeing the skill activated this time, as a shine over his skin. But the mana “smoke” was also there, but also changing. She’d noticed it slowly cycling, moving in and out around the Wood Shaper. But now it flowed in, more like a proper Artifact than the swirling faint cloud she’d been seeing.

“… but now I can see the Barkskin somehow. And it’s distinct.”

Fire Master seems more than just about fire,” Gomez, who had been watching the interaction, noted.

Ulrich let his skin return to normal and frowned.

Fire Master?”

“I just improved my specialization after you had left. Kartmann says I leveled right now.”

“And here I was starting to think you operated under the same rules as we did,” Ulrich said, looking pointedly at Gomez.

The scholar raised his hands in mock defense.

“So, you’re not just better at fire, but also better at seeing mana is my guess,” the professor said instead.

“It seems that way and…” Johanna stopped as the mana infall subsided, returning to the slow swirl she’d seen initially.

“What?” she blurted, once again.


They’d come out of the Library and did some experiments while the expedition was making a work area for the team, while others were setting up camp next to the library. The two wagons were put next to the building, and the draft teams set to graze on the high grass next to the ancient roadway.

“If you use more Talents in parallel, it takes longer to subside,” she finally realized. “I’m seeing your mana coming back, that’s what I think.”

“So, you can tell when I’m regenerating mana and when I’m full?”

“At least for you. I can’t see that mana cloud for anyone else. And we have quite several sorcerers and saints.”

Gomez had his notebook open and was writing notes like crazy.

“And it’s very faint, you say.”

“It reminds me of a very low-powered Artifact I saw in the Montana. But Ulrich is much larger than a small stone, so it’s easier to spot him,” she added, smirking.

The thirster snorted back in answer.

“I’m a Wood Shaper, not an Earth Shaper, I’ll have you know.”

“Mr. Sengfield? Can you empty your mana, say tomorrow? I want to see how long it takes you to be exactly full,” Gomez said.

“Got nothing better to do. I can run most of my Talents in parallel, but even then, it takes some time.”

“You normally take most of the night to regenerate. If you do it early in the morning, then we might clock it out accurately. You may be the only one we can measure for now… but here’s to hoping Mrs. Milton improves further. By the way, we have to measure the range at which you can see Mr. Sengfield’s mana flow.”

Johanna then spotted Cameron coming for them.

“All set up. You’re still going to convert books?”

“It’s a lot easier to transport parchments rather than books. Less volume. And we’re going to work outside. Unless the weather turns, it’s better lighted anyway. Not to mention nicer.”


The expedition had set up the work area at the bottom of the front stairs. The reading desks had been too unwieldy to move, but they’d brought down some of the turned-over tables from the main room. She looked up at the sun, gauging the hour, while two scavengers started bringing out books from the main reading room, making piles.

Ernesto Gomez looked carefully at each tome.

“Nothing interesting?”

“Everything in the library is interesting. But those seem to be novels.”

He flipped a few pages.

“Mid-Twentieth century crime mystery stuff. You can find interested collectors at times, but…”

“But parchments are more important.”

“There are probably copies of those already in circulation. Let’s focus.”

She smiled, sat at her chair, and pulled the first book on the pile next to her, and lines of blue sprang.

Level, Battler, Dexterity, Passes.

Here we go.


“What are they doing?”

Hank and Helena had snuck close to the Ancient ruins. There were enough spots with crumbled masonry and overgrown plants that they could see the Tallers setting camp. It did look like they were going to stay a bit longer. None of the Mooneyed could be sure, but it did look like this was truly Washington as they’d talked about.

“Some work area? They’re…” Helena stopped.

Even from the distance, she could see blue lines rising over the books that other Tallers had brought out of the building.

“Another mount-skill? What for?” Hank whispered.

“No idea?”

She saw the paper appear from the strange blue light swirl, as the man she was watching passed the book he had to the woman next to him.

Tom. And Laura, she remembered from spying at camp. She tried to remember who was who. Ulrich and Gomez the elders. Miles the expedition leader. Uther the cook – who apparently used ice mount-skills. She’d spotted him making ice blocks for drinks.

The four Tallers were bringing out the lights repeatedly, under the supervision of the elder. Whatever they were doing, it was even more bizarre than anything they’d seen before.

“The books seem broken?” Hank noted.

She squinted. The shadows were not at the best angle, and she wished it was a bit darker so she could see without day protection glasses, but the other Mooneyed was right. The book that the man had discarded had a bent spine and too few pages.

“They are changing the book pages,” she whispered back.

The entire expedition, she realized, seemed to be organized around the activity. A few Tallers were helping set up a campsite, but many were helping with whatever the four were doing. Books were brought out of the building and stacked on the tables, the seated Tallers made the blue lines dance, and ruined books were discarded to the side as others picked the results.

Helena was pained. There were a lot of books at the Camp, but never enough. She probably had read all that had interested her, and she realized that she was seeing more books coming out and being discarded than in her entire life.

“They came to do that?” Hank asked.

“It must be important. They’re storing the paper they extract.”

They watched the people working for almost an hour until they stopped. The sheets had been stacked and then brought back to the wagons of the expedition after the elder Gomez took notes.

They cleared the work area, leaving the remaining books stacked under the tables. Seeing the Tallers gathering for dinner, the two Mooneyed slowly disengaged and moved back toward where George Silvers kept the mounts.


“It looks like they knew exactly why and where they were coming,” Helena told George as they did a recap of what they’d seen so far.

“And they went straight here. They must have been there before,” Hank added.

“Looks like we lucked into spotting them near the camp, then. But they must not have been doing it often.”

“The question is, what are they exactly doing?” Helena asked.

“They spoke of getting power. Is that related?”

The three kept on brainstorming about the mysterious Taller activity.

“We need to figure out what those sheets they’re extracting are about.”

“They made a lot of them,” Hank said.

“What are you suggesting? Stealing some?” Helena asked.

“Why not? They probably got several hundred of those already. We can get one or two and they’re not going to miss them.”

Helena and George looked at each other.

“The wagons are to the side. And none of them should see any better than normal Tallers in the dark. Unless they have someone guarding right on top…”

Hank smiled.


About the author

Vincent Archer

  • France

Bio: Vincent Archer wrote his first story around age 11. On a mechanical typewriter, with carbon paper for a mimeograph to distribute in class. His teacher knew enough to make vague encouraging noises rather than really tell him what she thought. He wrote more stories afterward, but Time has thankfully managed to erase every trace of them.

Now that his career has settled in a mix of routine and insanity and that he's figured out that herding cats would probably be easier, he's finally started to write stories again on a media rather than inside his brain. Some of those are even potentially good enough to show to other people.

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