Frowning, the Ilium sent away the supplicant with a wave of its hand.
The excuse that was given to the creature that came to trade was that the price wasn’t high enough but that wasn’t the case at all.
The Ilium operated on a very simple ruleset, as did the rest of her siblings; that was the whole reason that they were powerful. The Ilium could trade, something for something.
Quantity and quality of the somethings traded barely even mattered, the Ilium only tailored it to follow he own whims of equity. In truth, she could give a vast space empire in exchange for a peanut, as long as both of the things were something.
But today, when the Ilium attempted to commune with her gift, it sputtered, and then failed. That hadn’t happened in a long, long time. Not since…
Her eyes flashed. Not since they had sealed that monster in the higher floor of the Tower.
With a terrible sense of foreboding in her heart, the Ilium began to make preparations in case her siblings were plotting against her.
Or worse, their seal was weakening.
After the last floor had been so eating friendly, I was rather disappointed when the floor assistants here seemed rather nonplussed by my food requests. They told me they would see what they could do, but that I should contact my administrator for more immediate assistance.
It was then that I realized I had no idea how to contact Jen, or really what she even did.
-Eat food, probably. It’s what I would do.
-Or bounce off things. Her body seems really bouncy.
I considered asking Ashni, but she was listening rather anxiously to a chubby ogre, who talked about how his sister had ascended yesterday, even though they experienced the rare Demon Emperor scenario, rather than the typical challenge from the floor.
That, he explained, was the reason there were so many challengers here. Because a high percentage failed.
Luckily, there was apparently a group that struck down the Emperor’s Black Knight and then advanced directly through the middle of the Emperor’s army, slaying him within a day.
-She’s too busy looking for Whipman to be any use.
Bored, I largely ignored the discussion of deployment strategies and wandered out of the city and towards the wall.
When I reached a small hill, obscured from the city’s sight, I activated Floating Pond Beneath the Moon.
The world… shifted somehow. Nothing changed, but I could also feel, another world, layered on top of this one where my feet were sitting in an extremely shallow pond, a huge yellow moon hanging low in the sky above me.
As I moved in the real world, I also moved in the strange other world, but the pond moved with me, rings of ripples slowly spreading out around me in response to the movement.
Then, my grin widening to the point of madness, I shattered the pond.
An immense pressure slammed against me, both against my body and against my mind, so much so that my perspective immediately flickered, fading in and out of focus. I felt very sharply, at the same time, several of my bones shudder and splinter slightly, but hold for the most part.
There were several moments where I was staggering, barely able to keep from toppling over, but the pain swiftly receeded, my control swiftly coming back.
I was left with only a few aches and pains, and a persistent throbbing headache.
-Cheh, takes quite the chunk of mana though.
Ignoring Other Me’s whining for now, I turned to the notifications.
Congratulations! Due to your actions, your skill has improved to “Lunar Break Lvl 5”. Mana costs slightly decreased. Physical damage dealt by the break is greatly increased. Mental damage is slightly increased. Bonuses doubled for Floating Pond Beneath the Moon.
Congratulations! Due to your actions, your skill has improved to “Absolute Control: Self Lvl 5”.
Congratulations! Due to your actions, you have gained the skill “Lesser Spiritual Resistance Lvl 1”. Spiritual attacks are slightly less effective against you. You heal slightly more quickly from mental or spiritual damage.
Satisfied, I looked around. The ground was jagged, strange, almost artistic spikes of earth sticking up in strange, swirling patterns. On closer inspection, they reminded me of the ripples of the pond.
In addition, a small tree that was relatively near to my location when I utilized the skill had been turned into a pile of sawdust.
-Physical seems decent, if it can get us close to injury.
-But it didn’t get us all the way. We have some more training to do.
“Hmm?” I twisted, looking at the horizon to the East. “What’s that noise?”
-Sounds like drums.
Kettle straightened her papers and looked at them all in turn, saying their names.
“Ms. Kat.” Ketlia nodded.
Kettle turned and looked at the slight asian man, who sat in the corner polishing a battle axe that was as large as his body was tall.
Kettle looked at the man lounging next to Ketlia, tall and blonde and wearing a blue glove on his left hand, a red one on his left, given to him by Kettle.
Then Kettle turn to the man that seemed to have skin of liquid quick silver.
Kettle then regarded the crimson haired, once-human girl, with rabbit ears.
Smiling, Kettle turned to hooded figure that always followed Jana around.
He didn’t seem to respond, and Kettle didn’t mind, turning to their thunder mage, who stood tall in his midnight blue robes.
Then Kettle looked at the small girl who seemed to be burning slowly apart from the inside.
“Endcelldross.” The girl snorted, folding her arms, causing quite a bit of skin to flake off.
“And with that,” Kettle said, activatinga terminal in front of her. “We are all here, and can begin.”
“We aren’t waiting for GIllette?” Ketlia asked coolly.
Kettle waved a hand. “He found some myth or other, and told us to continue without him.”
Annoyed, Ketlia pressed her lips together, but was ignored by Kettle.
“So, why we are all here.” Kettle said with a small smile. “Simple, to kill Predator. Now we’ve talked specifics over these past two weeks, but I want to give a general overview of how its going to go. A dry-run, if you will.
“The first step,” Kettle continued. “Is to make him take us seriously as a threat. After analyzing his fights, It’s pretty clear that when he doesn’t feel threatened, he relies on unorthodox methods and cheap gimmick abilities to win. Which is, of course, less powerful than his full strength, but it’s more dangerous because of its unpredictability. Encelldross and Xieche, you tow will unleash everything you have, all at once. That should get his attention very quickly.
“Heh, just don’t shed pretty tears when he doesn’t survive,” Encelldross said confidently, leaning back.
Kettle offered a small smile, but didn’t comment on Encelldross’ confidence.
“And if that doesn’t succeed…” Kettle glanced at Ketlia, who nodded.
“Then we start playing dirty,” Ketlia said.
“It’s apparently a statistical anomaly,” Ashni told me in a bored tone. “All the people who died on the previous attempt are cursing their rotten luck. It’s the Demon Emperor again, twice in a row.”
Her gaze traveled around to the shattered and twisted ground around me, and I sensed her curiosity, but there didn’t seem to be any real need to tell her what I was training up.
-She will find out soon enough.
“So, is that all?” I asked, standing lazily.
“Then let’s go meet the Demon Lord’s army.” I said, my smile widening.
Ashni and I stood on the wall, surrounded by several weak looking challengers that had been assigned to our “squad”. A sneer curled across my lips.
-Let’s hope we don’t accidentally eat them.
But then my mind turned to more pressing matters. Because I heard that this could last for three days, I was in no hurry to rush forward and fight the Demon Emperor, even if I intended to do that eventually.
-After all, what are all these skills for if not killing things with them.
But three days was a long time. Plenty of time to raise my Biomass up, hopefully to 10,000...
I frowned, suddenly thinking of something. If I killed too many of the enemies, I would level up early, before I gathered enough Biomass to be satisfied.
-You know what you could always do…
I grimaced, weighing my options.
Ashni was stretching calmly to the side, already used to my long silences.
Eventually, I decided that the annoyance was worth it and summoned a Bone Shaman. His immediate cackling and dancing did little to reassure me that I made the right decision, and I chose to augment his force with 10 skeleton archers and 5 skeleton bears.
Hopefully this would be enough to gather enough demon flesh for a good meal or two.
Obligingly, the Demon army already swirling forward, roaring their defiance, a few of the braver ones approaching the base of the wall.
As I watched, several ascended, and I grinned, absolutely bursting with excitement. I kept Aura of the Predator off, so as not to scare them away, but I could tell from their change in posture they felt it, the oppressive weight of the death that was awaiting them.
The axe of a predator hanging over their heads.
Unable to wait any longer, I beheaded two of the imp things with wind blades and grasped them with Air Affinity, pulling them up towards me.
-For meals, they surely do travel much too slowly on their own.
The bodies landed before me, dead and cooling, the beheaded bodies oddly clean, but I ignored it licking my lips.
The Bone Shaman hopped back and for, cackling, but then it stopped, tilting its head and looking at the imps.
Savoring every moment, I lifted a body and sank my teeth into it, relishing the soggy skin, and the flesh that tasted like ash-
-Hum, wait. This is pretty nasty stuff.
And it truly was. But I shrugged it off and continued to eat.
After a few seconds, I had inhaled the whole thing, licking my lips and looking at my hands.
-That seems…. Very unsatisfying…..
My face darkened, a strange suspicion rising in my chest. I started with the head of the second one, crunching the skull and slurping at the brains, only to find that everything was spongy and dull, with no flavor.
Sitting back on my heels, I felt my gaze growing stormy.
-Ashni did mention that this floor was different, that you couldn’t die here…
-So the enemies aren’t flesh that I can eat…. But just solidified experience.
Stepping up on the battlements, I looked up over the battlefield, my gaze cold as ice.
-Well then, no reason to waste time here.
-Time to assassinate an emperor.
“The Second Stage,” Kettle continued. “Is what I have been referring to as the frustration stage. Here, our focus is safety. This is a stage we just need to draw out until the frustration builds for Predator. Make him switch targets, feeling close to victories, but always make sure you take it away.
“As you know, Predator has a title that we believe will save his life 9 times. If you can, striking a blow that would use up one of those would be quite the boon. But,” Kettle added. “If you do it too early, before his Fury is high enough, he might start singling people out, relying on those life saves to take one of our lives. Early on, we cannot win that war of attrition. So toy with him, keeping an easy victory from his grasp. Do that for long enough, and we will move onto the Third Stage.”
Kettle smiled. “The stage I call ‘Blinded by Fury.’ This is where you are going to be the star of the show, Diver.”
The blonde man offered a confident smile.
I streaked across the, ignoring the strange skeletal ravens guarding the citadel of the demon emperor, aiming straight for the highest tower. I was hungry and annoyed, and this Demon Emperor would pay.
-Let’s get this over with.
The Citadel was a classically built castle, with three towers twisting up from the inner keep. The middle one ballooned out at the top, containing what I hoped was the living chambers/throne room/ secret laboratory of the Demon Emperor.
I hit it like an avalanche, collapsing the glassy obsidian roof in with barely any effort. The whole tower cracked and trembled, but I was already falling down into a room lined with velvet rugs and golden floors, most of which was falling or being destroyed in my arrival.
Slamming into the ground, I did my best to prevent another shockwave from rocking the tower, but honestly I didn’t try very hard, and the whole thing began to list to the side, very, very slowly.
There was a large table made of bone, around which one wizard looking zombie, a tall, pale, and skinny creature with no hair and red eyes, and a horned demon whose eyes burned green. The three of them were hunched over a map, with a candle with a black flame and a weird vase sitting next to it.
While walking calmly across the golden floor towards these three enemies, I considered carefully what to do about them.
-Kill them all?
-They all seem to be pretty a pretty considerable level. I might even be comfortable with killing two of them. But all three? Practically guaranteed to level up.
The Tower continued to lean, the area behind me rising while the place with the 3 demons falling, so my pace towards them increased, even as I was hesitating on what to do.
“Quick, Emperor, escape, I will take care of this intruder!” The demon with the flaming green eyes shouted, leaping over the table and using its very large claws to rush up the slight incline towards me.
-So that one is not the demon emperor?
-Unless he is just saying that to trick us, and buy time to escape. He was the one standing in the center, after all.
-How is running towards us going to buy him any time?
-Fine, let’s just kill him then.
I activated Immolation, gritting my teeth at the obscene pain that battered at my consciousness, and flung myself to meet the approaching horned demon. It seemed gleeful at my advance, and roared its joyous challenge.
Within seconds, after we began to grapple, that roar turned into shrieks as its flesh and bones and soul melted under the fearsome heat being emitted by every inch of my body. It switfly perished under the heat, and I bit it, curious.
-Just tastes like burnt sponge.
I deactivated Immolation, glancing around for the two others. They were both sprinting away, in opposite directions.
Barely held up by its cracking foundations, the tower continued to lean, approaching a 45 degree angle, the fleeing demons more accurately sliding away than anything else.
My eyes narrowed to slits, I decided to say fuck it, and made around 100 lunar reflection mirrors, each the size of a pumpkin, surrounding the two demons.
“Please no level, please no level…” I muttered, shattering them all at once.
Congratulations! Due to your actions, your skill has improved to “Lunar Break Lvl 6”. Physical and mental damage increased. Mana costs significantly decreased. Shattering multiple reflections at once has minor amplification effect, increasing the power of each by a small amount.
Sighing my relief at the lack of a level up notification, I leapt over towards the wizard demon to make sure it was dead, leaving even more cracked ground in my wake.
Sure enough, he was lifeless. The tower was groaning, swiftly falling down now, nearly making the ground vertical.
I coolly created platforms of air and hopped over to the pale, red eyed demon.
-Also dead. Hum….
-How would we tell if we killed the Demon Emperor, anyway?
Right about that time, the tower hit the floor, a huge wave of obsidian crashing down on me.
Kettle gestured towards Ketlia with a gracious smile.
Ketlia barely kept herself from vomiting.
“At some point, Predator will began to grow stronger and stronger due to Fury, but he will lose control due to that strength. That is when we strike. Ketlia will make that determination. So will start Part 3, ‘To Break Bones.’ Jana takes the lead here. Maintain your distance with her as your core, her power will be invaluable.”
Annoyed, I shoved some obsidian slabs off of me, brushing off my shoulders
-Might have a cracked rib, but otherwise fine.
I looked around, still a little lost.
-So did we…?
By then I spotted a strange light coming from under a large pillar. I recognized some of the debris by it as the bone table they were gathered around.
My eyes narrowed. Even though it was laying on the ground, the candle continued to burn with a dark flame. The vase was similarly prestine. Dark smoke flowed out from both of the objects, coalescing into an imposing blue figure with golden armbands and a wizened, withered creature with sickly looking grey skin.
“Quick, most beautiful, powerful, wise, enchanting, and evil Demon Emperor! Escape!” The wizened creature said, rushing towards me.
-I feel like this sort of thing should only happen once a day.
I stepped, utilizing my insights into the Thunder Stance, streaking past the wizened creature and appearing before the blue skinned man with the golden armbands.
-Seems regal enough.
He face caved in with a single punch, his body withering inward and dissipating.
“Of course, that’s a good idea oh most beautiful, powerful, wise, enchanting, and evil Demon Emperor, why didn’t I think of it? Oh wait I did, kukukuku.” The wizened creature called over his shoulder, scrabbling out of the destroyed tower. “Guards, to me! Protect your emperor!”
-...This piece of shit…!
I stomped on the ground, throwing myself after him, but say what you will about the Demon Emperor, he was fast and agile, worming his way through cracks in stone that I had to smash apart to move through.
Guards began to show up, but I simply activated Aura of the Predator and they fell back, shaking and moaning.
“Kukuku! We will meet agai--urghk!”
I finally had a clear line of sight on him and a hand of air gripped his neck.
I created a rope of air, my eyes bright with madness and rage, and began to drag the struggling emperor back towards me. He began shooting out condensed darkness towards me, deadly things that smote stone and made my nerves sing with pain, but I ignored it, dragging him every closer.
My grin began to crack at the edges, my senses frayed and driven to the edge.
-I am going to enjoy this.
With screams and threats and pleading, he arrived, and I began to break his bones.
First his withered hands, the bones reduced to nothing but a fine powder. Then his legs and forearms, leaving the bone granules there coarse.
Then, grinning, saliva dripping off my wetted licks, I turned to his torso and-
Congratulations! Due to your actions, your skill has improved to “Aura of the Predator Lvl 9”. Area of effect has increased. When a large group is affected, the more afflicted individuals there are near to each other, the more powerfully they are affected, until they begin to associate being together with the fear. Does not increase the speed with which they are affected.
Congratulations! Due to your actions, you have reached level 24. 7001 Biomass has been consumed.
Due to your special circumstances, you have the choice of retaining the previously earned Racial Growth Rate of “Thrak-Char, Outcast of the Molten Core” or use the Biomass to receive another randomly assigned Growth Rate. Note, retaining a Growth Rate will allow you to learn Racial skills at the typical level they are learned. Note, if a Growth Rate is retained, the Biomass will instead be converted into random chances for improvement.
Retain Growth Rate? Y/N
With exceeding slowness, I turned around, regarding the guards who had fallen to the side when I activated Aura of the Predator. I noticed that several of them still rocked back and forth, locked in nightmares, but others had gone completely still, succumbing to my influence.
I had taken too long.
I expended all of my essence, summoning a small, extremely tightly compacted ball of air, turning my now completely burning eyes to the demon emperor, holding the hand containing the ball out towards to the broken figure.
For several long moments I stood there. Then I clenched my fist.
Harder and harder I squeezed, pressing and pressing on the compressed air, until-
The ball of compressed air exploded, and such was the force that the hand I had been holding the air with turned into red mist and flecks of gore, completely annihilated.
Congratulations! Due to your actions, your skill has improved to “Absolute Control: Self Lvl 6”.
As the flesh began to wriggle and heal, I reached towards the whimpering demon with my good hand.
“You know what?” I cooed, pulling him into a warm embrace. “There is no rush. We have plenty of time. So many things to experience together.”
-So many of your minions to slaughter.
“So many memories to make.”
-So many skills to try out, so much experience to stockpile.
My smile stretched even more wide, and I only barely resisted the urge to bite his spongy head off. “You are the main course; it would be a disservice to the chef to skip the hors d'oeuvres.”
Kettle grimaced. “Honestly… I hope we never reach the 4th stage. If we can kill Predator while he is blinded by rage… so much the better.
“But…” Kettle hesitated, but then spoke, staring at the ceiling. “I expect him to take it up another notch, after we remove his 9 extra lives. After we remind him he is mortal. And should that occur…”
Kettle looked at Ketlia. “Did you master it, Ms. Kat?”
Ketlia gave a wry smile. “Almost.”
Nodding slowly, Kettle regarded the group. “At that point, the plan is to basically hold him in place and let Ms. Kat unleash her power. Let me assure you- nothing will survive it. And that it, everyone, that’s all we have for the fourth stage. I call it, ‘To Take a Life.’”