Jerry raised the field glasses to his eyes, surveying Predator’s path.
Or what was left of it.
When Jerry and the forces of the path had left, it was only for a few days, to train themselves through war games. The Haeugh had graciously hosted, and as a unit, all of minions of Predator had doubled down on themselves to improve.
It was only too obvious in the wake of that previous challenge that they were holding Predator back. And although no one would admit it to the lazy, lovable oaf, that all made them miserable.
But when they returned to the Path, they had found another army waiting for them. One that seemed as numerous as the stars.
Most of the army was composed of strange, almost robotic bone spiders, which swarmed up from every direction if you encroached on their slowly expanding territory.
All in all though, the bone spiders, or their larger, more threatening cousins, the huge bone centipedes which were as tall and thick as an elephant, weren’t that much of a threat. In a way, they too provided a tempering, quickly turning the hastily learned lessons from the war game into habit.
No, the real threat….
Jerry squinted towards the marsh, where a lone figure loped around, gathering the attention of a horde of bone spiders and quite a few bone centipedes, slowly leading them towards the encampment of Predator’s minions.
It was a ghoul, one with a lolling mouth and his eyes stitched shut.
Jerry wasn’t sure where the ghoul had come from, but there was an aura about it that filled Jerry with a thrill of fear.
“Well?” Turnip asked, leaning against his bow.
Jerry lowered his field glasses. “Get everyone ready. Spider Digger is bringing another round.”
Ketlia sat in her small cot, turning the pages of the report given to her by Gillette, reading by the light of dawn.
The Elven people had long known that their gods were lesser gods, two of four, and that the other two gods had created a world of chaos and power, full of tricksters and unspeakable evil. A world fundamentally different from their own.
But, brought face to face with the death of his love, Tuallan Rex could only wonder if those two gods could do what his own could not.
Could they grant life without taking it away?
So Tuallan Rex picked up the unspeakable research of the Mad Duchess and her ilk, investigating the boundaries of their realm. He abandoned the royal children, completely obsessed with the mad pursuit.
Abandoned and listless, the triplets found solace in their uncle, brother to their deceased mother, who took them in while their father toiled and meddled with forbidden things.
For a century, Tuallan Rex experimented, dutifully recording his findings. Although it was widely known that he experimented with the forbidden, the kingdom was reluctant to police his research as they had so many other.
After all, Tuallan Rex did not seek the unspeakable for personal power; no, he sought it for love.
And finally, Tuallan Rex succeeded.
He forcefully broke into the other realm, destabilizing both. As the four gods rushed to action, attempting to save their two realms, he beseeched them.
“Please! In your power, with your wisdom, return to me my wife!”
Abyss said, “It cannot be done.”
Genesis said, “It cannot be done.”
Seraphim, one of the gods of Tuallan Rex’s world, shook her head sadly and said, “It cannot be done.”
Nyx, eldest of gods, quietest of gods, she of nothing from nothing, she who loved Elves the dearest, said in front of her siblings. “...I want to let him try. I will take him to Mother.”
So Tuallan Rex ascended into the realm of gods, and saw many wonders. He knelt before Mother, who created all, and begged that his wife be returned to him.
“For my children,” Tuallan Rex said, a single tear falling down his face. “For my three lonely daughters.”
And seeing his virtuous heart, the Mother assented, using her vast power to revive Tuallan Rex’s wife.
Unfortunately, her soul had long dissipated when she was revived… she was less than whole. She was partially empty.
She struck out, shattering Tuallan Rex’s great armor and and his mind. She struck again, wounding the Mother.
As she raised her hand to strike a third time, Nyx intervene, locking Tuallan Rex’s wife down with a portion of her power.
She quickly informed her siblings, who rushed to help. Together, they vanquished the possessed woman, putting her out of her misery.
Tired, but still Godly, the four of them then worked, not to remake the previous realms, but to combine them, using Tuallan Rex’s strange apparatus as the beam that held it all together. A beam that conveyed life from the abundant realm of Abyss and Genesis to the lands of the Elves. A beam that conveyed magic from the strange and wondrous lands of Nyx and Seraphim to the Fae.
And atop the scaffolding that held the realms together still sits the Mother, who recovers to this day.
So care ye who foolishly climbs This Great Tower, for at the top you must meet the body of the man who can accomplish what cannot be accomplished and the grave of the woman who spent too long dead before returning to this life. And beyond that, you have one wish at the resting place of the Mother.
The report ended, and Ketlia leaned back, frowning slightly.
Now she had a few questions for Gillette.
I frowned, looking out over the horizon of my path.
Problem 1, my 10 tons of food that Ashni had promised me Jen had was nowhere to be found.
Second, there were literally MILLIONS of tiny midget skeletons, some of the the Bone Shaman midgets, others a weird skeleton spider hybrid, fighting each other in a mass melee in the western half of the Path.
-Not that this is necessarily a bad thing. Sorta improves the boring view. It’s just…
-They are making so much noise.
Third, and most important, I had arrived with Ashni, and proceeded to walk over to several skeleton archers and murloc hunters.
“Hey,” I had said. “What’s going on?”
They responded by throwing their small murloc spears at me.
I didn’t even bother dodging. They skittered off my skin, leaving no marks. The skeletons saw me, and I assumed they would correct the previous misunderstanding.
An arrow hit me directly between the eyes, rebounding harmlessly.
A vein in my temple twitched.
“Hey,” I said in a low voice, turning to the battlefield at large. “Why don’t you all shut up?”
The noise continued unabated. I could see a spot where it looked like the more powerful of my minions were battling against each other, but I couldn’t be bothered. After all, these minions were behaving badly. It’s my responsibility to punish them.
-It’s my prerogative.
Expending all of my mana, a mass of lunar mist that resembled a cloud bank snapped into existence above the fighting armies. A few individual soldiers looked up, fascinated by the glowing mist, but by and large the phenomenon was largely ignored.
My grin started to stretch.
-No reason to be a bad sport about it, let’s just teach them a small-
Another arrow struck my cheek, throwing off sparks.
A vein in my temple twitched.
Harder, more forcefully than I had ever done it in the past, I pressed, flattening that huge mass of lunar mist into a lunar reflection far bigger than I had ever maintained before.
I felt a strange tearing sensation in my head, and dozens of curved knives of pain slid in through my temples in my head.
With a grin slowly opening wide, I pressed more, holding it all together.
Congratulations! Due to your actions, your skill has improved to “Iron Will Lvl 4”. Your ability to maintain the object of your efforts has increased. Decreased chance of failing and experience mental damage due to rebound. Long term mental strain decreased.
With a soft metal click, I felt it all come together. More and more of the skeletons were looking up, pointing a the strange, beautiful mirror above them all.
Licking my lips, I shattered it.
Congratulations! Due to your actions, your skill has improved to “Lunar Break Lvl 7”. Mana cost of break decreased. Physical damage done increased. Area of effect greatly increased. Mental damage significantly increased.
“Ah,” I clicked my tongue in satisfaction as I surveyed a veritable sea of broken, and silent bones. “There’s that level up.”
Ketlia gave the man in front of her a long look, trying her best to decipher who he really was.
Gillette had been a Administrator for the first floor, referring talented challengers to his contacts, giving them escape from the hells of the first 3 floors. Then, abruptly, he had a change of heart, and once more made attempts to climb the Great Tower.
While Ketlia, Kent, and Diver were searching for an administrator to help them rise, Ketlia had come across his profile and become immediately interested. She approached him directly, using her charm and preparedness to sway him to take them on as challengers.
Then, after they had first formed their agreement, everything was going well. Gillette tested them, trained them, taught them to take advantage of their individual gifts. He then guided them through floors 6 through 9, taking care to put them in situations that would help expand their power, and also instructed them in the methods to act and fight that would capture the hearts of the viewers. Which, he assured, would become increasingly important as they continued to climb.
Then they arrived on the 10 floor. Since then, Gillette had largely given them over to Kettle, lounging around in stained shirts and soft pants while scrutinizing old records.
Yet, today, when Ketlia came, wanting to question Gillette regarding that strange story he had given her, she found him sitting in a well-fitted forest green suit, with a mint shirt underneath, his hands folded, with an entirely clean desk in front of him.
Stunned by the change, Ketlia opened her mouth and hesitated.
Gillette smirked. “Come in then, we need to talk.”
Ketlia walked in, her eyes drifting side to side, taking in everything. She had made her living while she was on Earth on reading moods.
Here, just in this room, the mood was entirely different. There was a strangeness to it, a fakeness.
Had Gillette been giving off such a move before she had offered for him to be their administrator, Ketlia would have refrained from asking. There was too much unpredictability to it.
There was too much unrestrained violence in the air.
Strangely, it reminded her of Predator, that first week, almost a month ago, in that marsh. She wondered how much he had changed.
“You are probably wondering about this outfit,” Gillette drawled. “If you would believe it, it used to be my standard work outfit. Bit of a uniform.”
Ketlia’s eyes narrowed. He still maintained the air of laziness that he had gained while doing his research, but also he still lacked that tight control, the very reason she approached him. Something was changing.
“No, I’m here to talk about the story.” Ketlia said, carefully enunciating her words slowly while sitting back. The quicker and more painlessly she could leave here, the better.
Gillette nodded, his face shifting into the utmost seriousness in a fraction of a second. This change did nothing to assuage Ketlia’s misgivings.
“I figured. Interesting, right? I think that is one of the original pieces of information we ever obtained on the Tower. It’s where the name came from, at the very least. Although I have to assume that someone climbed to to the top to verify some of what was said about it. What they found, I’m not sure, but ever since people have been wildly struggling to reach the pinnacle ever since….”
“You promised me a secret,” Ketlia said, as Gillette trailed off.
His eyes instantly sharpened. “Yes I did. And it’s a simple one. This is just a history lesson, one that’s verified. Long ago, their were indeed two very similar the Sera and the Philim, perhaps descended from the elves in that story. It was a long and bloody conflict, as most racial ones are, and the Sera won.”
Gillette tapped the desk. “When the era of climbing the Tower began, many Sera tried, but inevitably, they died. Some believed it was just a coincidence, but others believed it was the vengeful grief of a god. It was investigated by the producer of the show, and it all lead back to one individual: the one who had inexplicably insinuated herself as the gatekeeper of the tower, Ilium. And when asked, do you know how that individual replied?”
Ketlia tilted her head to the side.
“Something from something, always.” Gillette leaned back, studying Ketlia closely.
She merely commented. “Ilium and Philim are very similar words, in a way.”
GIllette offered her a sharp smile. “That they are.”
Grumbling, all of my surviving minions arrayed themselves before me. The ghoul I summoned with essence, who had apparently stitched his eyes shut. The Bone Architect. Jerry, Turnip, and the Haeugh. Tickles, the blighted ghoul, riding the one remaining vineling monstrosity, a skeleton bear with a parasitic vine beast acting as it heart, giving it 8 vine tentacles.
Black Bones, who was still only as large as a small dog, skittering up my leg to curl around my neck, humming in contentment.
Jen bounced awkwardly from side to side on my knee.
“Let gooooooo~ Predator, I told you the food is coming~ Oh my, you are so forceful, just taking me like this….” Jen said, her voice varying in pitch an incredible amount.
“You promised me 10 tons of food,” I said simply pressing down on her with most of my strength. Unfortunately, her body was more resilient than I anticipated, and she just squirmed in pleasure as I did it.
I pulled my hand away, unsatisfied, but she had said it was on the way, so until I figured out a more effective way to torture her, there was nothing I could do.
Ashni stood behind me, a sour look on her face. Jen had informed us earlier than while Whipman was here, on the floor, even with friends, he had sequestered himself in a library, frantically writing something down.
“With a She-Ogre and a skeleton, of all people,” Ashni huffed, and I was slightly amused by her display of emotion.
I didn’t even bother to maintain a hint of that good cheer when I turned my eyes to the group arrayed in front of me. “So, I suppose you’ve heard, but, in her successful attempts to carry out my wishes, Jen has already arranged for our first challenge to the path. It is tomorrow. A group of challengers apparently bid quite a lot of towers to get the first crack at us. The rules for the 10th floor…”
I spared Jen a glance, who just waved her tentacles at me playfully. “...are apparently rather involved, and I don’t really have the attention or time to go over them. I don’t even know them. Basically, we need to succeed in three of such challenges to ascend, as opposed to the usual one. But this first one will likely be the most… time consuming.”
“Kettle is trying to kill me,” I said, barely able to keep a grin off my face. My relationship had always been strange. It was always business and threats. And honestly….
-That’s what I understand best.
“So let her come. We will kill her and crush her pawns.” I said simply, then looked around. “Alright, you are dismissed. Jerry, have everything ready for tomorrow.”
Jerry opened his mouth to speak, but then hesitated, his eyes flickering. I grinned at him.
“You may give me a short list of summons you would like. Try to keep it under 5000 mana, I want to be full tomorrow morning. But, as I have said, you are dismissed.”
With a strange reluctance, they left, stepping carefully around a certain area.
The area where I had crushed the annoying, cackling shit of a Bone Shaman, to emphasize how important obeying was.
With a flash and a clap, a truck appeared, and large, tusked men began unloading drums of grubs. Casually flicking my hand, I ripped through the metal of the lids and began to feed myself, shooing Jen away.
My eyes gleamed with anticipation.
-Right now, this is my favorite kind of “training”
-Let’s hope no more enemies that aren’t made of biomass have the poor luck of showing up in front of us again.
Ketlia stood, trembling, on the training floor, trying to catch her breath.
Slowly, ever so slowly, the damage she had done to the fabric of reality healed. The torn space closed.
Ketlia considered the notifications in front of her.
Congratulations! Due to your actions, the skill “World Fissure Lvl 1” has been gained. World FIssure: By bending space beyond its limit, you effectively bend it out of existence, leaving a dangerous and unstable void. By compressing it at the point of nonexistence folding, the void is spread out, infinitely long and infinitely thin, across a certain line. Those along the line will be damaged physically and mentally. Such damage cannot be completely reduced.
Congratulations! Due to your actions, you have gained the title, “Ketlia, the Smiling Lucifier Lvl 1” has been gained. Although you are bright and attractive on the surface, your heart is selfish and you have a penchant for deceit. In addition, your power allows you to toy with forces that have the potential of destroying the fabric of reality. Your stats have been corrupted. Your status screen will no longer display your true stats. Your status screen will no longer display your true skills. Gains to Int, Wis, WP, and mana per level are greatly increased.
Ketlia’s heart was silent as she considered these two notifications. Then she dismissed them. It would likely be for the best that she not tell them of her new capabilities.
But as she turned away, she saw a hint of movement out of the corner of her eyes. Eyes narrowing, she began preparing to try out her new skill for the first time, but a huge wave of turbulent grey struck her consciousness, with enough force to send her staggering.
As she struggled to marshall her mental defenses and conjure illusions to hide herself, a voice made her pause.
“Easy. I just came because you interest me. Everyone is focused on Predator right now, but I think you will be the one who reaches the 50th floor of the Tower.”
“Besides,” the strange creature added, its 11 eyes blinking. “You are not my match.”
Ketlia nodded slowly straightening. “Hello, Ilium.”
Then after a second, she added, almost as an afterthought. “I’ve never been in the presence of a god before.”
The Ilium gave her a long look. “There is only one God, and that is the Mother.”
The silence lay heavy in the wake of that statement for several minutes.
Eventually, Ketlia asked. “Why are you here?”
“I’m waiting.” The Ilium said, her voice weary.
Ketlia raised an eyebrow. “For our challenge? Surely that is a bit… unimportant, in the grand scheme of things.”
“Unfortunately, you are wrong.” The Ilium said. “Tomorrow’s challenge is very important. Even if it will just reignite a very old struggle. But a lot of long thinkers are making their move. So I want to be here, to witness it.”
The Ilium stepped forward suddenly, holding up a hand. She lightly brushed Ketlia’s cheek, as Ketlia stiffened.
“You are extremely interesting.” The Ilium said. “You and Predator both. Partly because you are inverses of each other.”
“I don’t know what you mean.” Ketlia voice was frosty, her eyes narrowing.
The Ilium laughed. “No one will hear, I’ve made sure of that. Predator sold away everything that he was, his memories, his personality, his humanity… He began empty. He also gained great power from it. But you…”
The Ilium let her hand drop. “You sold yourself too. But nothing of your own. You sold your existence in the lives of everyone around you to me. Their memories of you. Their having known and met you. Your parents no longer had two children, only one. The lives you touched reverted to how they were, had they not met you. A selfish selling. But…”
The Ilium laughed long and loud, slowly sinking into the ground, becoming grey shadow and dispersing. “You gained great from your trade as well, didn’t you, Ketlia Karman?”
Then she was alone, where she stood for a long time.
“That is not my name,” Ketlia whispered.