In a dark room, 4 figures sat.
“The head of Arbiters informed me that he was uninterested,” The Ilium said. “The right and left gods are even still slowly waking, and thus are unable to come. So it is just us, brothers and sisters.”
“So it is,” A porcelain doll with golden eyes said in a bored tone. “So why have you called a meeting, Lily?”
A monster of shadow and deformed wood rumbled its agreement. The final figure, seemingly a teenage girl with stockings that shifted colors remniscent of the sky at dusk, kicked her legs up in the air, ignoring her siblings.
Ilium ignored the pet name and continued. “The sisters are acting.”
“Don’t you think we know that?” The porcelain doll snapped. “Tuggy and I spent all that time corrupting the mind of that human, making it a suitable host, and then the fucking bunny bitch swiped it from us. If we could act, we would. WE were the ones who pushed for the noninterference pact. If they don’t act first, I still say we do nothing.”
The teenage girl popped up, suddenly interested. “Well they aren’t doing nothing. They are definitely messing around in my world. I’m all for acting.”
“They won’t see it that way!” The doll shouted, her golden eyes flashing. “Are you all ready for the Penthouse to become unsealed? Because that is the direction we are headed if we do this.”
“Genie,” The shadow creature rumbled consolingly. “The two hands wake. Peace between gods is ending anyway. We should act now.”
The doll hissed her displeasure, going silent. Several minutes of stillness passed.
“....so are we in agreement? Do I have the council's approval to move?”
“As long as you understand what this means, Lily.” The doll’s voice deepened, becoming wind howling through an endless chasm. “Open war with the sisters means another war, if a silent one. One between us siblings. A cold war to inherit our birthright.”
The room began to shake, and the doll’s mouth wasn’t even open as she spoke her final line. “Only one of us can become the next Mother.”
The wooden shadow creature looked at the ground, brooding. The stockinged girl rolled her eyes.
The Ilium waited a few seconds, then said again. “....so we are in agreement?”
Ashni took advantage of the time that Predator was off indulging in his distasteful habit of eating his enemies, moving crisply through the warm ups of Thunder Stance. Her movements were smooth and graceful, leagues ahead of the childish flailings of Predator, and the murky bog of movements that plagued Whipman.
There was a small hesitation in her movements. Then she swiftly resumed her warmups, grinding her teeth and racing through the opening kata.
Whipman….! It was because of him….!
She couldn’t articulate exactly how, but his departure had caused Predator to become so… savage.
Even worse, after he had finally worked up the nerve to challenge her to a duel, after dancing around their courtship for weeks, he fled.
Ashni felt a certain satisfaction in cracking the surrounding ground with a uncontrolled step, rendering the once peaceful grassland unrecognizable. Her body felt fresh, and she instantly moved onto the next step: practicing the tier 1 forms.
Thunder Stance was primarily amount joints and tendons; the ultimate goal was to create and disperse cleanly as you moved the body. The more sudden this could be accomplished, the better.
The familiarity of the movements soothed Ashni. Which was good, because the urge to leave immediately to follow Whipman, immediately strangling him when she found him, was almost overpowering. Breathing steadily, Ashni began to increase her speed, making the the burden on her joints far beyond what a normal individual could stand.
She began to perform the 2nd tier forms.
Originally, these forms were kept out of the hands of any practitioners of Thunder Stance who didn’t have at least 2 years experience, simply because their bodies needed to grow used to the impossible demands before they could handle it. Even Ashni, pride of her Academy, took a whole year to reach the requisite resiliency.
Ashni was disgruntled with how Predator's body could naturally manage it easily.
Ashni had paid less attention to the whispered rumors about Predator’s growth rates, but they clearly had put him up to at least 100 in every stat. Generally, each stat point provided marginally less than the one before it, but the difference was still quite noticeable, especially at these levels where their skills weren’t high enough to make up for stat differences.
Yet Ashni had refrained from teaching Predator 2nd tier forms, initially because he hadn’t yet mastered the first tier forms, but now because sometimes Predator had a strange look in his eye. Like that of a starving snake looking at a fat mouse.
Her whole body began to hum as she began to practice the 2nd tier forms in earnest.
There were pros and cons to utilizing the 2nd tier forms. The most obvious con was the strain on the body, which didn’t cease after years of training. Even when most Tellites trained to their peak, they were unable to sustain the 2nd tier forms for more than an hour at a time, per day. Otherwise there was a risk of permanent injury.
The other major drawback of the 2nd tier forms was that they required a sizable pool of mana, and a fineness of mana control that escaped most of the Tellites who had strong enough bodies to practice the 2nd tier forms. Generally, their performance was left to the extremely skilled or the extremely eccentric, who possessed the right combination of prowess and stubbornness to reach the pinnacle of Tellite arts.
Ashni’s fist lashed forward, cracking the air, small serpents of thunder dancing across her knuckles.
The benefits were obvious; a small amount of control over the actual elements.
Very few outsiders had ever pursued the Tellite arts, just for the reason that there were quite a few skills that could achieve similar results, with a fraction of the effort. But that was because the powerful practitioners never left Tellus, hiding the truth that no one bothered to ask about, so it became an open secret: Tellus’ elements were quite special.
Halting, Ashni turned to look at a round bellied Predator who was loafing his way over to her.
“Miss me?” He asked, smirking. His eyes were narrowed in a way that made her realize he had witnessed some of the 2nd tier forms. Well let him witness. It was not yet time for those secrets to be divulged.
Ashni remained silent so long that Predator shrugged. “Let’s ascend then, to the 8th floor.”
The 9th floor was basically the last challenge before proceeding to the 10th and it was exactly what Whipman was looking for: a chance to try his new forms.
Whipman hadn’t been idle since moving on beyond Predator and Ashni. He had trained diligently, using all of the below floors as crucibles to refine himself. In weeks past, while the group was still together, Whipman had despaired at his inability to successfully practice any of the forms left by his master. He had persisted despite initial failures, and his overall fighting ability had suffered for it.
It was only after the large battle on the 5th floor, and his breakthrough, that he realized that he didn’t have enough total insights to combine the stances to form the super stances his Master had created.
What Whipman could do, however, was combined specific insights together, creating a singular move, much more similar to the skills recognized by The Great Tower than a comprehensive martial art. And those moves seemed more than enough to significantly boost his power.
In the days since, Whipman had outlined 4 moves, including Storm Walking, that would become the basis of Whipman’s own style.
Whipman had spent more than a little time drooling while thinking about how proud Ashni would be when he was recognized to have invented his out style. Most of these sessions ended with him hurriedly wiping his mouth, looking around surreptitiously. The most embarrassing session involved Jerry walking in on him, leaving the dining conversation between them tense and slightly judgemental on Jerry’s part.
The 9th floor was one of the only cases where the challengers combined forces, fighting against an assault by a generated army of demons. Passing was usually taken for granted, because you only needed to hold out for 3 days, or defeat the Demon King.
And because the challengers passed as a group, there would be times that an impatient and powerful challenger would just defeat the Demon King, ending the floor.
It was now around noon on the 1st day, and Whipman was growing bored. In the initial meeting before it began, there didn’t seem to be anyone who wanted to take charge, so the army sat content along the huge, sprawling wall that marked the edge of the protected territory.
Even if the demons broke through the wall, there was also the Golden City they could defend, and the Crystal Keep within that.
It was very rare that challengers lost on the 9th floor. Everyone who made it to that point was a talent that the Administrators wanted to nurture, so much so that instead of dying, challengers who were wounded were simply teleported to a safe zone.
Whipman yawned, leaning against his post on the northern portion of the wall, where 19 other challengers who were loosely assigned to this “group” hung around.
Just when Whipman was considering whether to practice his moves, a distant rumbling drew his attention far to the East, to the demon spawn point.
The rumbling was growing in volume, but it was still incredibly soft. Whipman looked around, and it seemed like no one else had noticed it. Perhaps it was only by virtue of Predator’s Perception bonuses that he could currently hear it. Ultimately, as no one else seemed to react, Whipman began to ignore the noise.
To pass the time, Whipman brought up his status screen.
|Name:||Zindaloo a/ka "Whipman"||Level:||17|
|Tellite Warior||Traitor||The First Stormwalker||Disciple of a Hero|
|Spear Mastery Lvl 8||Martial Master Lvl 7||Weapons Mastery Lvl 5||Dash Lvl 4|
|Lesser Resistance to Thunder Lvl 4||Lesser Resistance to Earth Lvl 5||Resistance to Water Lvl 1||Lesser Resistance to Air Lvl 6|
|Pain Tolerance Lvl 2||Thunder Stance Lvl 4||Air Stance Lvl 8||Water Stance Lvl 9|
|Earth Stance Lvl 6||Stormwalking Lvl 6|
Whipman nodded, inwardly slightly giddy. Being undead had its drawbacks, but the boosts he got for being Predator’s summon were really starting to add up. His stats were much more respectable than they were during his time among the living.
“What that noise?” A female ogre holding a large warhammer asked, looking towards the source of the rumbling. Her question was directed at a skeleton who was floating in a meditative position in the center of the group. It had seemed the most powerful creature of their group, and most of the others deferred to it. Meanwhile Whipman, who still looked extremely frail and sickly as an aftereffect of using the forbidden technique while he was among the living, was one of the group who stood at the fringe.
The skeleton slowly unclasped his hands. “Although this floor is usually extremely simple...there are rumors that there is a chance for that to change. The Birth of a Demon Emperor, rather than simply a Demon King. Roughly speaking….”
The skeleton cocked his head to the side. “That would increase the difficulty around 10 fold. And I believe that noise is the Emperor’s war drums.”
“So… you are saying I can do nothing?” Predator spoke slowly to the floor assistant, who nodded nervously.
Predator casually reached down and grabbed another squirming grub, which appeared to be his favorite, from the buffet that was laid out for the challengers.
Ashni was frowning. The assistant had informed them that the 8th floor was the “Lottery Floor”. They would remain here until their names were drawn out of the lottery bowl. Two names were drawn a day. There were 1000s of challengers on the floor, sitting, resting, training, etc. waiting for their chance.
“You need to be lucky, as well as strong.” The assistant added.
Ashni did he best to not appear annoyed, but was slightly amused at the same time. Much as she distrusted this new, feral Predator, he certainly dealt with most problems in an effective manner. This useless assistant would likely soon find a crowded home in Predator's belly.
But to her surprise, Predator simply stuffed another handful of grubs into his mouth, nodding. “Guess there is no helping it then. By the way, can you bring out another plate of these? And a seat would be nice.”
Bowing,the assistant said, “Of course, honored sir,” and hurried off.
A vein in Ashni’s temple began to throb.
What was once a few scattered patrols in front of the sprawling wall turned into a veritable sea of demons, a huge mass of bodies surging towards the walls. Even now, several of the faster demons leapt towards the walls, beginning to scratch and claw their way up towards the defenders.
“Do we surrender the wall?” The she-ogre asked uncertainly, now firmly entrenching herself as the #2 in the group, standing next to the skeleton.
The skeleton simply shook its head.
“You heard ‘im” The Ogre barked, turning to the rest of them. “We are gonna hold. Not like those yellow bellied cowards on the South wall. We hold, and we slaughter enough demons to gain a few levels. Remember, you can’t really die here. Fight your heart out. You do good enough, you might even catch the eye of a wealthy donor, or administrator. Get to your positions.”
Whipman rolled his eyes, already in his spot, 2nd farthest away from the skeleton. The only person further was an azure snake, seemingly sleeping still.
‘More demons for me, I guess.’
Within 5 minutes the demons came, screeching their hatred. The first wave was simply a small imp variant, easily dispatched by a measured thrust of the spear. Although it was made a tad bit more complicated by the fact that the azure snake was sleeping, and Whipman had to cover both of the gaps in the battlements, his spear flashing back and forth.
Still, it was slightly mind numbing; the imps couldn’t have been stronger than Lvl 5. As his eyes glazed over, Whipman found himself staring at the snake, watching how his shiny scales reflected light. Due to the distraction, his spear attack was slightly delayed, but the execution was sharper, more graceful. The curves of his strikes were more deceptive, sometimes slow, sometimes fast.
His eyes continued to follow the curves of the snake, until several things happened at once.
First, a notification popped up.
Congratulations! Due to your actions, you have learned the skill to “Serpent Strike Lvl 1”. When you focus, you can change the style of your spear moves to mirror the deceptive grace of the serpent, striking rapidly and retreating without warning. Small chance of confusing weaker enemies who witness your spear arts. Your spear blows will most slightly faster while utilizing Serpent Strike.
Before Whipman could really read the notification, another creature climbed up over the battlements, and his spear flashed out towards it, utilizing the new Serpent Strike on instinct. Unfortunately, rather than the typical Imp, this was a rather larger species of demon, with unhealthily pale skin strapped over bulging muscles.
Although Whipman’s precise strikes had been enough to defeat the Imps, the blow on this Pale Demon simply ripped open a huge gash in the throat of the Pale Demon, enraging it.
It would likely bleed out eventually, but in the meantime, its hateful eyes were locked onto Whipman as the one who dared wound it.
Roaring, it surged forward, and Whipman’s eyes snapped to focus. This was the chance he was looking for.
Water Stance, feel the flow, control the flow.
Earth Stance, center your strength and make it as solid as a diamond.
The Pale Demon attacked, slashing with its claws, but Whipman simply leaned to the side, the air whistling harmlessly. Even more enraged, the still bleeding demon kicked toward him.
Eyes flashing, Whipman’s senses extended, covering the oncoming blow and the demon behind it. He carefully observed the small ripples of force and momentum surrounding the kick. For the skill, Whipman needed to slowly let the demon flail, slowly cutting off the Demon’s strength, leaving him with no option but to die in the stifling flow Whipman created.
Stepping forward, Whipman took the kick to the chest before the opponent’s leg was even half way extended. It still hurt, but Whipman was strong enough now that he wasn’t seriously injured by the blow. Howling, the unbalanced Demon twisted awkwardly, opting to slash at Whipman once more, even in its unbalanced state.
Whipman lowered his stance,spinning his spear. The shaft of the spear whipped out, striking the Pale Demon’s arm and pinning it to the nearby battlements. Then Whipman’s palm surged forward, carrying with it the concentrated weight of his body, smashing into the White Demon’s chest. Whipman aimed his blow carefully striking through the demon’s flow, sending it off balance.
Calmly, Whipman stepped backwards, saying. “Welcome to the Quagmire.”
Almost irresistibly, even as it struggled and flailed, the Pale Demon fell backwards off the battlements, gnashing its teeth.
Congratulations! You have combined “Water Stance Lvl 9” and “Earth Stance Lvl 4” to form a new, unique skill. Previous skills will also be retained at their current levels. Would you like to create a name for the unique skill?
Whipman’s grin in that moment could have rivaled Predator’s. “Zone of Quagmire.”
Congratulations! The skill “Zone of Quagmire Lvl 1” has been gained. Zone of Quagmire: A defensive skill that creates an area within which the user slowly erodes the opponents base of power by skillful manipulation of the flow of battle.
Congratulations! Due to your actions, your skill has improved to “Zone of Quagmire Lvl 2”. Mana costs slightly decreased. The area of influence is slightly larger. Insights into the use of flow allow you to predict an opponent’s moves more effectively.
Congratulations! Due to your actions, your skill has improved to “Zone of Quagmire Lvl 3”. Mana costs slightly decreased. The flow created will be much more difficult for opponents to break with brute force..
Congratulations! Due to your actions, your skill has improved to “Zone of Quagmire Lvl 4”. The longer the zone is active, the more powerful it becomes. Blows made within the zone are much more powerful.
Congratulations! Due to your actions, your skill has improved to “Zone of Quagmire Lvl 5”. Mana costs greatly decreased. Resistance to damage while using the skill is greatly increased. Predictive abilities within the zone are greatly increased.
Congratulations! You have earned the title “The Warden of the Quagmire”. Mana costs for The Zone of Quagmire have decreased by 10%. Experience towards leveling up the skill has increased by 10%. End, Dex, and Wis +5. Mana + 100.
Several more imps flooded up in the wake of the pale demon, and Whipman stopped using the zone and flicked out his spear, slashing them to pieces. They came in handfuls now, exploding up over the battlements in groups larger than Whipman could comfortably deal with, handling two sections of wall as he was.
The Azure Snake continued to sleep, seemingly having a good dream.
“You…. are content…? With THIS….?” Ashni hissed, watching Predator continue to eat. The assistants had brought him a plush chair, which Predator was now sprawled over, additional assistants fetching him more plates of grubs and other various delicacies that covered the buffet.
Most infuriating was that Predator simply smiled at her and asked. “Why do you wish to climb the Great Tower so fast, Ashni?”
She glared at him. “Did you mean to ask why I am unsatisfied with simply loafing around and growing fat? I suppose it is simply my good upbringing.”
Rather than being annoyed by her insults, Predator just seemed more amused. “You know Ashni, you just need to-”
“Sir, here are some more grubs.”
Predator chuckled. “Relax, I sorta get the rules. Ashni, if you like Whipman, why don’t you just say something? I don’t really know anything about relationships, but if you're good upbringing just makes shit like this pointlessly difficult-”
“Why do you keep bringing him up?” Ashni unleashed her most scathing glare on Predator. “That weakling is likely dead already, on his own. To hurry after him would be meaningless.”
“Then why not enjoy our time here,” Predator said while rolling his eyes, bringing another handful of grubs to his mouth.
Things for Whipman’s group were beginning to go south. There were two main reasons for this.
‘Well, three,’ Whipman thought. ‘If you count the unending horde of demons.'
The first thing was that Pale Demons were coming up in increasing frequency, almost completely replacing the imps. Whipman, who was still forced to cover two sections of wall, was barely holding, but some of the other members of the group were being pushed back, several Pale Demons at once surviving on the wall, working together to create a foothold. One of the group had already died.
The other problem was the more concerning one; they were being surrounded. The group to their immediate south along the wall had retreated about 20 minutes ago, either overwhelmed or simply tired, and had let a stream of demons gain the wall in their area. Rather than chase after the fleeing challengers, the demons opted to arc around, encircling Whipman’s group which continued to maintain a tenuous hold on the wall.
There was a lone bright spot, however.
Congratulations! You have reached Level 18.
Due to being a summoned undead of Predator, you have gained additional stats!
Due to your title “Disciple of a Hero” +1 to all stats!
The real reason Whipman had been able to hold out was one that annoyed him: the balance stat he had obtained from Predator. It had been hard to notice at first, and Whipman initially had chalked it up to his boosted Dex, also by Predator, but now it was getting increasingly obvious that his base was stronger, his reach longer, and his ability to recover from bad stances was greatly increased.
Of course his balance was still small, only 14, but that fraction of a second in battle was the difference between life and death.
“We have a problem!” The ogre shouted, worry clear in her voice.
Whipman spared the center of the formation a glance. Two many challengers were being pushed back, and a group of around 20 Pale Demons was now free up to attack other defenders on the wall, gleefully striking them from behind.
The Skeleton hands blurred, a dozen complicated hand sigils appearing and disappearing, and then it pointed a small ball of violet light shooting towards the largest group of Pale Demons. As the violet light neared them, they began to scream as the flesh melted off their bodies in a 3 meter area around the light. The survivors scrambled backwards, and the light passed by and off the wall.
Screeching their fury the Pale Demons surged back towards the defenders, but the ones who were killed by the attack shuddered, their bones turning a violet hue. They slowly rose, grappling with their former comrades. Seemingly weaker than the Pale Demons, but durable and still in possession of sharp claws.
Still, more Pale Demons were arriving by the second.
Whipman took two steps back, activating Zone of Quagmire and spinning his spear as his senses took in the ripples from the 3 Pale Demons he was currently dealing with. His spear blurred, knocking two slashes aside, into each other, sending two Pale Demons staggering. Like a sinuous tongue, his spear flicked outward, licking through the chest of one demon and tasting its heart, and then out again.
Congratulations! Due to your actions, your skill has improved to “Serpent Strike Lvl 2”. Grace of the attacks using Serpent Strike increased. You can now weave together multiples strikes using Serpent Strike for increased effects.
Whipman grinned, but was forced to roll out of the way as the Pale Demon who hadn’t lost its balance leapt at him. He escaped easily, but what happened after that made him freeze.
The Pale Demon stumbled, stepping on the tail of the Azure Snake. The Snake's eyes immediately flickered, then opened wide, revealing eyes that were completely and totally grey, like swirling mist. It opened its mouth, a powerful jet of water surging outward, striking the Pale Demon in the chest and sending it tumbling over the edge of the wall.
Then, slowly, the Snake turned its grey eyes on Whipman.
Whipman smiled awkwardly, dispatching the final Pale Demon by beheading it.
They watched each other for a long moment. Whipman blinked.
When he opened his eyes, the snake was slithering, faster than Whipman would have believed possible, skittering over the ground towards Whipman.
He yelped, jumping backwards, but the creature was too fast, bunching its body up and leaping towards him.
As it approached him though, it seemed to shrink in size, becoming only as thick as his wrist.
It landed on his body and blurred into movement, lacing itself around Whipman arms and throat. Then it stilled.
Whipman stood awkwardly, unsure of what happened. Then the Snake began to hiss softly, evenly, as if…
As if it was snoring.
The weight was noticable, but not too heavy. Was it planning on just staying like this...? Before Whipman could consider further, three more Pale Demons surged up over the wall, and his focus turned to more pressing matters.
He managed to defeat those three well enough, but more and more were coming. And he could see that aside from the snake and himself, there were only about 5 other challengers remaining.
“It is now time to retreat,” The skeleton said coolly, immediately floating away from the Pale Demons, its purple skeletons opening a path.
Whipman hesitated, then ultimately decided it was for the best, and followed it, joining the ragged bunch of them as they did their best to retreat.
Even though they all knew they needed to break through a slowly growing army behind them before they would find any sanctuary.