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A note from puddles4263

So the beginning. Hope y'all enjoy it

***POV Shuusuke***

Bleary, Shuusuke rolled over and off the bed, slamming his nose into the floor.

It did wonders for waking him up.

Cursing the dumb Great Tower for starting its events so early, even with the 4 hour time difference, Shuusuke hobbled off to the kitchen, careful to stay quiet. Strangely, now was a time of day that his parents were home, if only to collapse and sleep, before returning to the industrial complex.

After eating, Shuusuke would test all his equipment, then arrive at Predator’s path, finalizing some of the macros for the challenge.

Then, he would record what he hoped would the most lucrative streaming episode to date for him. Reaching behind him, he rubbed his wings, wishing fervently for good luck.

Then he sighed.

“Too bad that dick at the factory took all my money to replace the table.” Shuusuke muttered. “I’d love to have any spare change to bet with…”

***POV Whipman***

Whipman gazed at the chest. It contained the incredibly powerful and insightful forms of his master, and now it contained Whipman’s notes on those forms, and Whipman’s own four moves.

Corporal Dave’s talk of the outside forces interfering with the challenge today made him nervous. For his own piece of mind, he decided to record his findings, so Predator could benefit from them, should the worst happen.

Although if Whipman died, it was more than likely that Predator had already died, so maybe it was pointless…

But still he persisted, talking about his experiences in attempting to learn the forms left by his master, his experiences and insights for attempting that process again.

Because the more Whipman had trained in the arts that were left by his master, the more he realized how profound they were, and what they really were was not a series of “Advanced Stances” but a method. A method of creating your own stances, using the powerful elements of Tellus as the base.

It felt almost foolish for him to add his own petty moves to the chest, but still…

It would be a tragedy to leave them out too.

After storing it at the nearby bank with specific instructions, Whipman checked the rest of his gear. His beat up tunic. His trusty spear.

Finally, Whipman removed the strange case that Kettle had given him. “In case of emergencies,” she said. To protect Predator.

Within the case was a small ring, with what Whipman sensed was a pretty profound skill, waiting for a trigger. Whipman slipped it on.

He needed every edge he could get.

The azure snake asleep around his neck squirmed, and Whipman rolled his eyes, but was careful not to disturb it. Ever since he had become its familiar, Whipman had realized that it had somehow broken his relationship with Predator, which took away the extra stat gains, but also allowed his body to change and heal, nourished by the creature’s mana.

Before leaving, Whipman turned to and fro in front of a mirror, admiring how much improved his skin was from its previously wrinkled grey state.

He hoped Ashni would notice.

Whipman left his room, going to meet Corporal Dave.

***POV Predator***

I didn’t sleep any that night, but it was the greatest sleepless night of my life thus far.

Groaning, I rolled out of bed, attempting to stand.

“Predator,” Jen whimpered, “Even more?”

“I can keep going,” I said, blinking my eyes to clear the blood rushing to my head as I sat up.

“I don’t know if I can…” She said meekly.

But I just grinned. “Let me handle that.”

Shaking my head to clear my vision, I stood and stumbled over towards the far wall, where another huge drum of grubs awaited me. Jen had been carrying them over to me all night, but after a night of continuous exertion, even her tireless tentacles had grown limp.

When I arrived, I was too impatient to be careful, and just ripped the thing open, grubs spilling everywhere.

I licked my lips.

-What a great time to be alive.

*****

Frowning, I looked out over my path.

For once, the two sides were united

-In their fear of me, ehhehe

They worked quite efficiently, assembling a fort roughly the size of the previous one. I gave it a cursory look over, still shoveling grubs into my mouth, and thanked them quickly, but I knew it in my heart that the fort wouldn’t mean much; these bastards dared to openly wait for me, and I wanted to rush out among them and break them to pieces.

Much to my glee, apparently the numbers of undead and murlocs were currently fluctuating so much that Jerry wasn’t able to draw up a report for me.

-One less thing to worry about.

As it stood, we had groups of skeleton archers and bears for fighting, some ghosts for communication, and a horde of murlocs and bone spiders.

I ordered most of those to retreat to the fort. This would be a battle between elites. The minions would just get in the way. Jerry, Ashni, Turnip, the Haeugh, Black Bones, that weird vineling monstrosity, and the Bone Architect stood on the wall with me, waiting for our opponents to arrive. Of those, I only really wanted Jerry, Ashni, and Black Bones to do any real fighting. The rest were filler.

Jen told me that she had extended an invitation for Whipman and his guests to intervene on my behalf for me, and they hadn’t responded yet, while I stoically continued to devour grubs.

There was a small, hot annoyance in my chest at the news, but the fact that Jen literally bought me 10 tons of grubs was more than enough to allow me to overlook it for now. He would show up sooner or later.

A rumbling filled the air, and the skies parted, a golden platform floating downward out of the sky, landing in the western marshes.

My eyes narrowed, my prodigious perception giving me a perfect picture of the group that landed on the ground.

My lips curled. “Jinka, so I’ll finally get the chance to crack your skull, eh…?”

As I watched, metal spread out, covering him in a thick layer, even forming around his body in a strange, metal exoskeleton, slightly different than the skin coating it was before.

-But even if it became stronger, I doubt it could keep up with us.

To his right was a vaguely familiar Mage-looking fellow with a wooden staff and a midnight blue robe. Immediately deciding he wasn’t worth the effort of remembering, I looked to the next one. That figure…

….also looked extremely familiar, but I had never seen that little girl wearing a tiny dress. But the way her skin was flaking away, and there was a strange light underneath the skin of her collarbone…

-Oh wow, she must be related to Ennie.

-Maybe his sister, seeking revenge.

-Familial bonds are so admirable and pure.

Beyond Ennie-sis was a woman with long, fiery red hair. And she…

-Ah, that homeless woman we saved in that first marsh.

-She certainly has done well for herself in our absence, huh? And looking at the set of her spine…

-She’s coming for blood.

I grinned, saying aloud. “Then let her come to try and take it.”

Crowding next to her was a tall, blonde man, wearing a red glove and a blue glove, glaring around hatefully in every direction.

My eyes moved to the next individual, and I immediately tensed.

His body was slight, with a light chainmail over his chest. He had two battle axes strapped to his shoulders, but also rows of knives across his chest. At his waist was a short, slightly curved sword. His expression was peaceful, but the air around him was rippling with bloodlust.

“Hey, hey, hey,” I murmured. “This might be more fun than I thought.”

Beyond the interesting one was a man with his face shadowed by a drab brown cloak.

-Snore

...And beyond him was the final individual, also with red hair. But while the first’s hair was like fire, this woman had thin hair the color of blood. And she…

-Is that Jana? I wondered where she wandered off to. She would have been a good grub fetcher.

-...I think so, but when did she grow bunny ears…?

-I have no idea. This tower is fucked. Remember the time we grew a foot and our eyes changed color?

-Not well. That hurt like a bitch. Got these sharp nails though.

Finished investigating the competition, I felt more excited than I expected. There were at least three of them that I instinctively felt was a threat to me. Which was basically 3 more than I was expecting.

But then I thought of something, and frowned.

-No trigger from Code of the Dragon? What a rip off.

I cracked my knuckles.

-Better work off some steam by killing these idiots. But first…

I lifted up a huge metal drum to my open mouth, the rest of the grubs inside sliding down and into my mouth. My adam’s apple bobbed up and down as I chugged the rest. After a few seconds, the last wriggling grub slid down my throat, and I lowered the drum with a satisfied burp.

Flicking the drum, I listened closely to the clear ringing sound that the metal made.

-This is made with good stuff.

My grin spread crooked across my mouth as I began to use my nails to slice off the bottom, leaving a jagged and sharp circle of metal.

-It’s killer how good this stuff is.

***POV Ketlia***

“You all know the plan right?” Kettle’s voice rang through their ears through the communication pieces as the platform landed, that small lurch announcing their arrival on Predator’s Path.

Ketlia blinked slowly, looking around.

...honestly, the marsh was disturbingly reminiscent of the area that the two of them first met.

“So Encelldross and Xieche, move quickly before he can use the large armies of undead to surround you. Remember, Part 1 of the plan is to make him take us seriously; don’t pull your punches.”

“Did you get an updated look at his stats?” Diver asked, his expression hateful.

“Negative,” Kettle’s cracking reply came. “He cut me off two days ago. I expect he has another level, so be careful about a skill we don’t know about. Still, work together and we have this easily. Ketlia, you’re in charge.”

Ketlia’s astral senses tingled, warning her of nearby danger. But not so near she felt the urge to dodge. She looked up and around, scanning the area. Her psychic sense spread, touching on her team around her, and then spread farther, reaching out and brushing against Predator, careful not to look to deeply, in case he had the ability to sense it.

She reached farther, feeling Predator’s minions, their tiny little minds flickering like embers in a cold world.

Ketlia went to smile, but her astral senses started warning her more urgently, but she couldn’t feel-

Then things began to happen very, very quickly.

Kent’s eyes narrowed and he moved to pull Ketlia to the side, away from the area of Jinka, Encelldross, and Xieche.

That movement brushed up against Diver, who leapt around, his eyes wild and paranoid, raising his blue glove against the perceived threat.

Then Ketlia could hear a low buzzing.

Encelldross turned to Xieche. “What is-”

A disc of metal, thrown so fast it was screaming, bisected Encelldross’ body, severing her upper torso from the rest of her body. Immediately light and heat began to flood out from the wound.

The disc continued to rip forward, completely severing the flesh of Encelldross’ upper torso, which floated backwards. Flashing forward, the disc smashed into Jinka’s chest, but was completely rebuffed by the metal exoskeleton, skittering away harmlessly.

Diver stepped in front of Ketlia and Kent, his blue glove raised to the small sun that had previously been held within Encelldross’ chest, but was now revealed, and twisting wildly.

Dak stepped in front of a snorting Jana. A shield of thunder sprung into existence in front of Xieche. Roaring, Jinka rumbled forward towards it.

Eyes wide, Encelldross looked down at the small sun, revealed from within her chest. “Oh shit-”

BOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOM.

Hot air and debris slammed into Ketlia, ripping through the feeble psychic barrier she had been able to throw up in the small time she had to react. Even with most of the force in her direction absorbed by Diver, she was still dizzy and sick.

...dealing with the physical was not her forte.

But then she felt Kent’s steadying hand on her shoulder, taking off most of the rest of the strain.

Still, the heat and smoke was unbearable, and she stumbled away, coughing. As she did so, her mind reached out, connecting to the others.

Encelldross’ mind was conspicuously absent.

“Everyone alright?” She sent to them all.

Confirmations immediately came back from Dak, Jana, Kent, and Diver, although Diver’s was extremely snappish.

Ketlia reached with more finesse, slipping into Jinka’s and Xieche’s mind. In Jinka’s she found some confusion and dizziness, likely due to mild shock.

In Xieche’s, she only found howling fury.

Then, while she was still within his mind, she felt Jinka snap to focus, and she could clearly see through his eyes a tall figure walking through the smoke, his long fingers twisting through long tendrils of smoke.

“He’s here.”

Then Jinka threw himself at the figure, who began to laugh, and a huge wave hit them all, a wave of hopelessness, his Aura of the Predator.

Gritting her teeth and burning through a quarter of her mana, Ketlia activated mental barriers around them all, keeping them out of his influence. Otherwise, this would be much, much harder.

She quickly ordered everyone but Jinka and Xieche out of the area of the blast to regroup.

To Jinka, she said “Hold him down.”

To Xieche, she said “Show him thunder.”

***POV Predator***

There were several amusing things about the whole situation.

The first was I already had another level up waiting for me to click accept, so I didn’t need to worry about killing them and gaining a level in an inopportune time. Not that I didn’t already have a significant amount of biomass already, but it was nice to have control.

The second was the shocked look on the face of Ennie’s sister before she died. I almost felt bad.

The third was that she had exploded when she died, which was a nice bonus.

The fourth was that most of the team who wanted to “trap” me was running around blind in the smoke, while my powerful senses let me sense them clearly.

The fifth was that my first target for this fight, Jinka, was rushing towards me like a blind walrus.

So I would ignore the fleeing ones for now, and deal-

-Hmm?

I sidestepped smartly, avoiding the lash of a lightning bolt.

The force of the attack cleared most of the debris out of the air, revealing ground that had been melted and was slowly solidifying before my very eyes. The explosion was also extremely strange; I assume due to one of them, the northern part of the crater stopped abruptly, as if someone had been completely able to stop the force.

The southern side was still a pool of bubbling rock.

The magey fellow with a midnight blue robe was striding towards me, bolts of lightning dancing across his person. Hissing, he raised his staff, the lighting coalescing into a ball of concentrated power that positively hummed.

I made to move to the side, but I found Jinka had thrown himself at my legs, using the absolutely ungodly weight of his body to hold me down with sheer mass.

-We really need to get better about situational awareness in a fight.

-Eh, they are weak anyway, what does it matter. If we wanted to win, we would just use skills. But it’s much more satisfying to rip them apart, piece by piece, with my hands.

The ball of lightning struck my chest, doing more to paralyze me than injure me. My muscles spasmed strangely as the huge surge of volts traveled through them. Jinka got some of it too, perhaps his metal body conducting it, but it seemed as if he recovered quickly.

-They’ve probably been exposing him to it for this reason.

He had soon recovered from the shock well enough to offer me an insufferable grin. “Ah, Predator. I am pleased you are still alive for me to kill. This is a joyous day. I will tell my grandchildren someday of your sufferings at my hands.

Another ball of lighting was summoned and, slightly paralyzed and weighed down as I was, I could just raise my arm to meet the ball. Grimacing, I felt small shards of my bones snap off all over my body as this attack, basically ignored my raised arm, simply running through my body, causing me to shake violently.

-Fine, no more playing.

As my eyes darkened, my grin spread.

Jinka continued to talk. “I will tell tales of some of your lesser merits too, just so they know how superior I-”

I coughed up a fat wad of bloody phlegm and spat it at him. It was extremely satisfying to watch it hit his metal covered eyes, and him ineffectually try to rub it away with his metal covered hands.

“You-!” He howled, but I simply grunted in response, squatting down to get my arms around his extremely dense body, beginning to heft his wait.

-Fucking heavy.

But as the third ball of lightning was forming, I heaved, ripping Jinka’s body up and away from me, breaking the grip his grubby fingers had on my ankle. Arms waving wildly, he flew a few meters forward, but it was enough for him to block the next ball of thunder.

Hissing, the mage circled around, getting a clearly shot at me.

Offering him a slight smile, I rubbed my neck, the last of the strange muscle spasms from the electricity disappearing.

Then I stepped, the cooling ground beneath me shattering from the force of it, launching myself at the Mage.

Much to my surprise, the Mage moved with surprising quickness, as if he had prepared for this too. He spun his staff, the lightning ball dissipating, long serpents of lightning now running up and down his staff. Soon, that too began to hum with power, and he moved to slam the base of his staff into the ground, but I was already there.

Against my better judgement, my right hand went out to grip the staff.

-Wait-!

By Other me had spoken too slowly, and my hand had shot out and locked onto the staff, preventing the hooded figure from slamming it into the ground. But as the serpents of lightning bared their fangs toward my hand and slithered up the shaft toward my grip, I felt a sinking feeling in my stomach.

Even with the shadow from the midnight blue robe, I saw the figure’s mouth quirk up in a small smile.

After a slight delay, the pent up power in the staff discharged, running through my hand and through my body. I could feel the muscles along its path seizing and spasming, so much so that it didn’t seem like I would be able to release my grip on the staff anytime soon.

My grin stretched an inch wider, my eyes becoming wild as I grinned at the mage.

But he seemed to ignore my attention, instead concentrating harder on his staff, shifting his grip so both of his hands were now wrapped tightly around the wooden shaft, more and more serpents of thunder rushing up his arms, through the staff, and through my body through the grip.

I heard a strange rushing noise as more and more power coursed through the wood and into my body, and my bones were beginning to vibrate slightly. I didn’t think that it would do any significant structural damage, but the way the bones in my arm were grinding over the soft tissue in my joints was agonizing.

With fiery eyes, I took a stuttering step towards the mage, intent on crushing him personally. But then I hissed through my teeth, finding most of the right side of my body having gone numb, and spasming oddly. It was all I could do to remain standing.

-You really shouldn’t have grabbed the weird lightning wood.

Fury +1

Fury +1

Fury +1

Fury +1

Fury +1

-Oh, is that so? Thanks for your insight.

-So what do we do?

The flow of power was growing stronger, and the pain was getting worse. Although honestly it was nowhere near the level of Immolation, it was still annoying.

I briefly considered using a skill, which would have resolved the issue quite easily, but I quickly squashed that impulse. I wanted to tear these challengers to pieces with my bare hands. There was no pride in handling a mouse with a forest fire.

-Simple.

Closing my eyes, I ignored the flow of thunder energy seizing up my body and focused on my hand.

-Ah, just let go of the stick? If it was that easy-

I focused a bit harder. The wood groaned and cracked, splintering slightly.

-Ha, let go? No. I’m going to break this mother fucking piece of wood

Fury +1

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The eyes of the hooded figure widened, as if he realized what my plan was just as soon as I told Other Me. Immediately, the mage performed a strange series of gestures with his hands, and the lightning energy began to enter into my body in erratic pulses, making my muscles spasm painfully for a split second, followed by a brief period where they begrudgingly relaxed, twitching in displeasure.

Whereas before I was just slowly and surely increasing the tension in my arm, now I was forced to time my squeezes with the pulses of electricity. Too soon, and my hands were just as likely to spasm out in the wrong direction as obeyed my will. Too late, and the wave of numbness left me incapable of the fineness of motor control the action required.

-Not that squeezing a stick requires much fine motor control.

Fury +1

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Fury +1

“Thanks for the help,” I whispered, and was surprised when someone answered.

“Hahaha, you accept your end so easily. Truly, you are an individual who would leave his wives unsatisfied, and his children hungry.”

Fury +1

Fury +1

My eyes twitched left and landed on Jinka, who looked profoundly strange. The exoskeleton of metal that usually covered his body was dripping downward, as if it was melting, flowing down his arm to gather at his fist.

Of course, at the fist, the liquid metal was gathering into a brick of sizable proportions, about the size of a chubby human toddler.

“Well, it just makes my task easier.” Jinka continued. “Xieche, be a good teammate and hold him still, alright?”

Magey- or Xieche, I guess, hissed something, and then began to talk rapidly in an unfamiliar language.

Laughing good naturedly, Jinka shook his head, stepping closer. “I can’t understand anything you heathens say-”

Although my right half of my body was numb, my left was largely fine, and my kick caught Jinka in the chest, striking the part of his body where most of the metal had left, flowing down to the brick forming in his hand.

The thin layer of metal on his chest cracked, several large chunks falling off and away, revealing tanned skin. Jinka stumbled back, coughing widely.

In response, Xieche trilled strangely and readjusted his grip, the amount of power coming through the staff almost doubling in power.

But my grin was only getting wider; I was becoming more adept at timing my squeezes, and the wood began to feel dangerously close to shattering.

-Well, dangerous for them.

Jinka spit, a wad of phlegm spattered with blood. Then he turned his now cold gaze towards me.

“Hmph, always you struggle. I admire that. But you are a monster, Predator. You have traded your humanity for power. You hold a sword but your wrists are weak. Let me put you out of your misery before you injury yourself.”

Fury +1

Fury +1

Grinning, I tried to talk, but the right side of my jaw was locked weirdly, and I couldn’t get my tongue around the words.

As another pulse of electricity came through my hand, I flexed a split second too late, bringing the wood extremely close to breaking, but the strength leaving my hand at the last moment, the cold numbness spreading. I waited, my senses stretched to the limit as I tried to get the timing right.

Metal flowed even more quickly down Jinka’s body, leaving his head, his torso, even his legs bare. Within a few seconds, there was only one appendage covered in metal; his arm, a huge slab of metal that was beginning to resemble a crude axe wielded by giants.

Warily, but determinedly, he stepped forward and began to speak. “There are two types of men, Predator. Men who double down on their beliefs when challenged, and those who flee.”

He raised his huge axe, the quicksilver flashing as it caught the rising sun.

His eyes burned as he stared directly at me, and said. “I. Do. Not. Flee.”

I saw something rushing towards the three of us out of the corner of my eye, but it was much too far away.

A pulse of electricity came. My hand squeezed.

The wood shattered, small splinters exploding everywhere, serpents of lightning screaming in pain. Xieche stumbled backwards, seemingly partially blinded by the explosion of his staff. But my eyes were locked onto Jinka.

Fury +1

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His huge axe ripped downward, aiming for the side of my neck.

My smile continued to curl upward, my face becoming increasingly twisted.

I did not dodge.

The huge weight of the metal axe crashed into me, a small chip of my collar bone coming off from the force. Due to the lingering numbness from the lighting, I stumbled slightly as my right leg faltered under the weight.

But within a second, still while Jinka was recovering his balance from striking with such a heavy weight, I was standing straight and looking down on him.

“Not enough,” I said, enunciating both words with glee. One of my clawed hands shot forward, towards Jinka’s exposed throat.

Another hand caught mine, one covered in a blue glove.

“How about you go to time out, asshole.”

That blonde man somehow got over to me in time to interfere, and even more annoyingly, he caught my attack effortlessly. My momentum was completely stopped by his slightest touch.

Now his other hand, his right, in a red glove, shot towards my chest. I raised my hand to meet it.

Although he was quick, he wasn’t as quick as I, and my twisted claws encircled his hand, intent on breaking his wrist, and then-

I blinked, finding myself slightly disoriented.

Looking around, I realized that I had somehow ended up on the far side of the crater, near where the marsh met the road that lead to my fort. I was in a slight clearing, and at the other end of the clear was the asian man with his arsenal of weapons, looking at me with interest.

-Everybody wants a piece of me today, huh? Couldn’t even wait his fucking turn. How did that happen?

-Maybe the glove guy? And it is basically a party over whether we live or die, so… You are the one everyone wants alone time with.

Cracking my knuckles to remove the last of the numbness, I tilted my head towards the asian man with a twisted grin. “So, is it your turn?”

He simply shrugged and said. “Plans have changed. You are currently only playing. I am not here to play. You are secondary.”

Fury +1

-Hey, let’s not be vain now.

Frowning at him, I asked. “Then who’s first?”

The man pointed back up the road. To my fort. My frown deepened.

Although I wasn’t too pleased with my idiot minions, they were still mine. I made them, I gave them life and mana. I would crush anyone who dared to try and take them from me.

I turned and began to walk away, back towards the fort, expecting an attack. But none came. Instead, the man said. “You are Predator.”

Stopping, I looked back over my shoulder towards him. “And?”

“And I am Kent. Come find me when you are tired of playing.”

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There was a moment where I considered saying fuck the minions and turning around to crush this arrogant piece of shit in front of me, but I still was calm enough to stifle that voice. I hadn’t paid close enough attention to Jen, and didn’t know if the challengers could win by reaching the core of the path and heading through the portal. I wasn’t even sure if there was still a portal.

They claimed to be setting a trap to kill me, but it was hard to trust the stated intentions of someone who was so obviously opposed to you.

Reigning in my vicious impulses I began to rush away, back towards the path.

Kent, too, would die this day. I simply needed to be patient.

***POV Jen***

Jen watched the fights nervously. She cheered when Predator killed one of the challengers and boo’d when he was strangely teleported away, saving the life of the metal challenger.

Honestly, Jen was extremely impressed by Shuudator’s cameras. He always seemed to have an angle that allowed you to see over a character’s shoulder, or show what two characters were talking about far away, across the path.

She wasn’t sure how many cameras he was using, but it seemed like a lot. Jen wondered idly whether Shuudator had a lot of employees. She knew some things about Cloit culture, and there was a great deal of social status associated with wing color.

She was sure that with those golden wings, he was a well respected individual among his people.

A knock at the door interrupted her thoughts. After a brief hesitation, she opened it to find someone she didn’t expect at all.

“Kettle?” Jen squeaked.

Kettle stepped through the door, looking odd. For one, she wasn’t wearing her glasses. For another, she seemed oddly sweaty. Jen wasn’t too knowledgeable about human anatomy, but Kettle seemed unnaturally sweaty.

But when she spoke, Kettle’s voice sounded exactly the same. “Jen. Perhaps it’s strange that I’ve come, but I wanted to speak with you briefly. After all, we are both Administrators. We share some of the same emotions, I’m sure.”

Jen tried to think of a time that Kettle had been emotional, and came up blank. The closest she could think of was the strange mania that overcame Kettle the first time she had met Predator. “Um, okay. I mean I’m just watching, so come on in. We can share some grubs.”

***POV Ashni***

Everything was fuzzy and blurry, and Ashni blinked to clear her vision. It did little to help.

But then she heard Predator’s roar. “The enemy is here. Attack!”

She grimaced, wondering why Predator chose the weirdest moments to talk in cliches, but still raised her spear, her gaze clearing. Her jaw dropped.

Surging over the wall was a wave of demons, the same demons that populated the 9th floor. There were imps and the brawny pale skins, as well as several more exotic and powerful seeming varieties, including ratmen that belched spears of acid.

Her mouth quirking up, Ashni moved, instantly ripping through half a dozen demons.

Although they were numerous, and Thunder Stance was primarily designed for single targets, the demon’s bodies were so weak that a single thrust imbued with the principles of the Thunder Stance could kill several of them.

It was slightly concerning that the opponents had figured out a way to use the demons from the previous floor against them, but Ashni found it increasingly likely that someone was putting their finger on the scales for the forces opposing Predator. It was slightly chilling.

However, although the forces capable of providing that assistance were someone to be reckoned with, their demon minions were nothing but fodder; Ashni cut them down like wheat.

A bellowing demon with thin, stick like arms and and hands that held black flames leapt towards her, palms forward. It shot the black flames on its hands indiscriminately, reducing the demons around Ashni to ash as she bobbed and weaved. Her eyes narrowed as the fight began to drag on.

The demon didn’t seem to tire at all; if anything, the amount of flames it was producing was growing further. And their power seemed to be growing.

In an attempt to catch her with the black flames, the demon threw them at her feet. She dodged out of the way, but the demon shot the flames farther, burning the ground underneath where she was going to landing, filling the hole with black flames.

Tsking in annoyance, Ashni stuck her spear into the ground, vaulting to safety, then she settled down into one of the basic forms of Thunder Stance, the one that Predator displayed the most proficiency with, so much so that Ashni had been secretly training for weeks, so she could keep up with his monstrous growth.

As the demon raised his hands, still covered in those powerful black flames, Ashni saw the opening between them and exhaled through her teeth.

“Clear Sky: Sudden Bolt.”

The head of her spear deftly slid in between the demon’s ribs, ripping a huge hole in its heart. Then the spear flicked out cleanly, bloodless from the strange demon’s spongy-

“Eh?”

Ashni blinked, looking at the spear. Her vision flashed. Her spearhead was covered in blood, but in the next moment it was clean. The demon’s body toppled over, hitting the ground.

The fogginess in her vision became even worse, and she narrowed her eyes. Her head began to pound.

She remembered, that feeling, that endless, dreamlike year she felt, waiting.

Predator’s cocky smile, as he asked her repeatedly why she wanted to climb the Tower.

Ashni snorted, all the derision and pride of her personality conveyed in that gesture. This illusion could not hold her.

And just like that, the illusion broke.

But the sounds of battle did not cease. Frowning, Ashni looked around, a horrified expression growing on her face.

The demons had disappeared, but instead, now murlocs murdered each other. Skeleton archers turned Murlocs to pincussions. The Haeugh, covered in weeping gashes, was cackling and using a giant club to smash bone spiders to pieces. Ashni raised her gaze, towards the group of figures standing on the wall.

A cloaked man stood next to two women, both with red hair. One had hair the color of blood, and she stood with folded arms.

The other’s hair was fiery, red-orange, and her eyes were glowing golden, even now keeping the rest of the path under the influence of her illusion.

Growling, Ashni took a step forward, and heard a extremely small cough.

She looked down. Disbelief colored her face.

“....Jerry?”

***POV Shuusuke***

Shuusuke’s eyes were bloodshot, but he didn’t dare blink. And he knew it would get much, much worse by the time the battle ended. This would be a long challenge, no matter who was victorious.

Shuusuke’s three cameras were barely able to keep up.

Most annoyingly, his camera’s had no way of viewing what the creature of Predator saw under the illusion. Right now he was making do with fast jump cuts with cameras in and out of the eyeline of people on the battlefield, but the fervor and glee with which the people were hacking into their brothers made Shuusuke wonder what they were seeing.

Shuusuke hurriedly typed out a new macro for his automated cameras with one hand, checked the camera following Predator, then continued to zoom closer on Ashni with his main camera, activating the language capturing software. His mic hummed online.

“....Jerry?”

The crumpled figure on the ground’s face was covered in confusion. He shook his head.

“I…..I thought you were a demon. Thank god I didn’t-”

Jerry offered Ashni a wane smile. “Well I suppose… I suppose there was no way I could….I could have hurt you….You are too….”

Jerry coughed, frothy bubbles of blood coming up out of the gash in his chest. The same gash on his chest from which his life blood pumped, forming a deep pool beneath him. The fight continued around them, no illusioned creature close enough to interfere with the scene, for which Shuusuke was eternally grateful.

The framing was ideal.

Although it was less good luck, and more the fearsome power of Jerry’s skill. His ability to annihilate matter was the stuff of nightmares for most fighters. Very few had the skills to get around that and strike a blow.

Even fewer had the ability to make it seem as effortless as Ashni had, crossing the entire distance in a single, powerful thrust.

Ashni just looked at him, her face grave. She bowed her head.

“I am sorry. If I had realized it was an illusion-”

“No, no,” Jerry fought his way through a coughing spurt, then smiled weakly. “I already died once anyway, so…. I never thought I would… even climb this high… if my family….”

Then Jerry shook his head. “Ah, but it’s best this way. If something had happened to you… Whipman…”

Jerry’s eyes went hazy. Shuusuke slowly zoomed in closer.

“Tell Whipman… Goodluck. And Predator…” Jerry began sighing, but it soon turned into a coughing spree.

He smiled up at her bitterly. “Either thank you, or I’m sorry. I can’t… decide…….which he would want to …...hear…..”

Ashni stared at him for a long second. Shuusuke could tell that she wanted to say something to him, to reassure him.

But she also recognized that he had already died.

Two notifications came up from Shuusuke’s other cameras. One was that the blood haired figure on the wall, Jana, had noticed that Ashni was out of the illusion and gestured to the hooded man next to her, who leapt down and began to stride over towards her.

“Predator,”

Shuusuke jumped, taken by surprise by Ashni’s emotional hiss. “They didn’t deserve this. They don’t deserve to die for your recklessness.”

The hooded man, who Shuusuke had learned was named Dak, surged closer, only a few meters away. Ashni remained on the ground, gently reaching forward to close Jerry’s eyes.

Shuusuke knew that he was undead, and wondered whether it was so simple as Predator reviving him again later. From Ashni’s sadness, it seemed that it was not the case.

Dak raised his arm, a strange, baleful aura surging around him, but as he struck, a spear flashed down, knocking the attack aside.

Ashni finally looked up. “What took you so long?”

Whipman stood there, holding his spear, glancing warily from Ashni to Dak, and then back.

Then, in an extremely awkward manner, he offered her a small smile.

“I was waiting for a dramatic entrance.”

Ashni continued to just stare at him, her expression neutral. Whipman’s smile slowly faltered.

“You,” Ashni said in a monotone voice. “Waited and watched until after I killed Jerry, just so you could make a dramatic entrance? You have spent too long with Predator; all you know is levity and foolishness.”

Whipman, his eyes wide, hurriedly said. “No, no, I was rushing over, but had to stay out of range of her spell until someone broke it, I didn’t-”

“I know.” Ashni interrupted, standing. “If you really had waited, I would have slit your throat the moment you arrived. As it is, prepare to beg me for the pleasure of dueling me after for the right to have my hand in marriage. Or better yet, prepare to not speak with me until I’ve decided you are worth wasting years of my life.”

“But for now…” Ashni settled into an aggressive stance, her spear raise. “Pick up your weapon. Now we ride for vengeance.”

***POV Jen***

Jen sniffed loudly, looking with teary eyes at the cooling form of Jerry. She wasn’t really all that close with him, but… But she knew that Jerry did a lot for Predator. That although he would always get so exasperated with him, Jerry would also be the man that Predator relied on.

Jen sniffed again.

Worse yet, Jen bet that Predator did not know the two rules that the Tower imposed on necromancy.

First, a body cannot be revived after it has been dead for a year.

And second, a soul cannot be brought back from beyond twice.

They say that originally, they only had the first rule, but as challengers used necromancy more frequently, they swiftly acknowledged the necessity of the second rule.

The first time you died, the shock of it would numb the soul, blocking most horror of nonexistence out of your mind. A swiftly revived soul wouldn’t linger long in the void, and wouldn’t be affected all that much by it. The warmth of pseudo-life would block it out.

But the second time, there is no shock, there is a certain familiarity. And there is the pain of being ripped once more from your husk, shucked like ripe corn.

A soul revived for the second time comes back with haunted eyes, and will likely kill the person who revived it, and itself, within a day.

“It’s terrible, honestly,” Jen said, speaking hesitantly. Since arriving, Kettle had been completely silent, staring blankly forward. Jen had assumed she came to talk about something, and had been waiting. But as the silence stretched….

Maybe she really had just come to watch it together.

“It’s just terrible,” Jen continued, embarrassed at her long pause. “That we administrators can’t do anything. Our challengers fight, and we just have to sit there, even as they suffer, as they struggle. It makes me feel-”

“Well that’s not necessarily true,” Kettle said, her neck snapping around towards Jen, a weird grin on her sweaty face.

“Huh?”

Kettle smiled. “There are a few ways for Administrators to interfere, if you are willing and able to help your team…”

***POV Predator***

Jinka’s smug grin, as he stood arms akimbo, along the path to the fort, did nothing to improve my mood.

-Don’t let it get to you too much. They are trying to work us up on purpose.

Fury +1

Fury +1

Congratulations! You have reached 100 Fury. All stats +1 until the Fury degrades.

Fury +2

“Yea well,” I growled in a low voice, not even bothering to slow down as I shot towards Jinka. “It’s working.”

“Friend,” Jinka began, “Do you not wish-”

I stepped with all the force and explosive power I could muster, cracking the ground, causing my body to hurtle past. He stopped his speech and shook his head.

“So you choose the hard way. Admirable, yet foolish.”

As I shot past him, the ground around us exploded, a huge cage of lightning surging to life, giving us a small dome of around 20 m to move on the ground, rounding upwards, and meeting above with a dangerous sounding crackle.

Fury +2

Fury +2

I simply narrowed my eyes, continuing to accelerate. My grin only stretched wider as I ran towards the net of lightning that blocked my path.

-Rip through.

When I reached the net, my charge slowed, the net of lightning both possessing a physical presence and discharging a huge amount of electricity through me, numbing several parts of my body. But I simply roared and planted my feet, pressing forward.

The lighting stretched as I pressed, the pulses growing less frequent, and more weak. My smile was vicious, but as I made to take another step, a sharp force smashed into the side of my knee, my leg instantly folding under me.

The strangely elastic lightning rebounded, throwing me backwards into the middle of the dome, where I landed in a heap. Jinka stood over me, leering, his metal once more all concentrated down his arm, forming a huge axe.

As I attempted to stand on my right leg, it crumpled again, and I could sense something was significantly torn in the muscle of my knee.

Fury +2

Grinding my teeth, I straightened relying on only my left leg, feeling my powerful regenerative capabilities spring to work. But they would require a bit of time. As I continued glaring at Jinka, I wove a clumsy sling out of air around it to alleviate some of the pressure.

It was strangely disturbing seeing Jinka’s brown skin after I had so long saw him as a moving being of liquid metal. He grinned at me.

“So now I have your attention. Normally I would wait to crush you at your strongest, but I think that would be a waste of time; I am superior, there is no doubt. Come friend. Meet your end.”

He raised his axe, his face the perfect mix of slight regret and utter confidence. The vein in my temple throbbed.

Fury +2

Fury +2

Fury +2

Fury +2

The axe came down, a huge thing of blurring metal.

Sighing, I shook my head. Effortlessly, I grabbed the axe out of the air, my fingers acting as a vice, holding it fast.

After grunting, JInka stumbled, frowning. I deftly pulled the axe head towards me, dragging his body along with it. I picked him up, raising him to my eye level.

He was struggling quite furiously now, the metal flowing back to encase his whole body, but my arms were long enough, and my Str high enough, that it was a minor matter to hold him up.

“You are the fool. Didn’t you learn your lesson earlier? You are nowhere near strong enough to injure me; It was only a fluke that you tore something in my knee. And look,”

I stomped my leg for effect.

“Already healed, none the worse for wear.”

Jinka chuckled, and the metal on his body began to bubble and seethe. “If you think-”

“Just shut up,” I interrupted, pulling Jinka close and wrapping my arms around his body. “I hope this hurts.”

Then I squeezed.

Then I squeezed harder.

Then, gritting my teeth, the veins in my arms bulging, I readjusted my grip and squeezed.

At first it was the metal, cracking like a china tea cup. Then very quickly it was the bones of his ribs, cracking with several loud pops.

Then it was the wet sounds of his organs exploding, pressed until they popped like a balloon.

Oddly exhausted, I dropped him to the ground. There was a strong temptation to eat him, but I wanted to return to the fort as quickly as possible to investigate what was happening while I was away.

-Just like these pieces of shit to ruin a good fight AND a good meal.

Fury +2

Fury +2

But, in the strangest effort  of will I had ever witnessed, Jinka rolled to the side, vomited out what must have been the bloody remnants of his internal organs then turned to me.

“I pity you, Predator.”

“I pity the dead,” I answered bluntly, but Jinka just offered me a smile, his teeth bloody.

“You don’t understand. My wife has already died. It is… the greatest honor…..to….follow…..her…..to the next life…..She….needs…..”

Soundlessly, he died. I gave him a long look. Then I reached down, ripped off his head, and began to eat it.

Fury +2

Biomass +1

Fury +2

Biomass +1

“Even in death,” I muttered. “You still want to act like you’re superior? Like you are full of honor and strength? But you are just prey.”

I turned my eyes to the lightning dome, still crackling around me “Just another cooling body of helplessly weak prey.”

For several seconds, I scanned the dome, searching for evidence of that mage.

Then I stepped, in a split second surging back towards the net.

***POV Whipman***

Fighting Dak, more than anything, reminded Whipman of only one thing: Fighting Predator.

Whipman activated Clinging Mist, slipping away from Dak’s powerful strike, condensing back behind him. Zone of Quagmire sprang to life, and Whipman deftly wove his spear, weakening Dak’s stance.

There was a certain clumsiness that both of them possessed. A certain fearful brutality in their movements. And also, Dak utilized a strange magic that made Whipman nervous, very similar to some of the things Predator did.Their was a pale, baleful aura that surrounded him, almost like a second skin, a body composed of baleful energy that was almost invisible.

When Dak attacked, that energy would form fangs and claws, adding a little extra range and damage to his strikes.

Whipman spun his spear, attempting to deflect a rough swipe of Dak’s, but only succeeding in redirecting it slightly, keeping it from gutting him, but it drew a red line across his chest.

With a smack and crack, Ashni appeared, riding a sonic boom, her spear smashing into Dak’s side like the rush of a surging column of cavalry. His limbs flailing, Dak’s body was sent flying, smashing into the wall of the fort.

It was one of the portions that hadn’t been destroyed in the fight against Shemara, but it appeared to have been weakened in that clash, for it almost immediately buckled, falling down on Dak.

A cloud of dust surged as the rubble collapsed, settling into a pile.

Grimacing, Whipman kept his fighting stance and walked closer to Dak. That was the other thing that made Dak resemble Predator.

The rubble shifted, a figure straightening, his cloak ruffled and ripped, but seemingly unharmed.

Like Predator, this was a man that just couldn’t admit when he should be dead after some of the hits he had taken.

“Ideas?” Ashni asked crisply. She kept her eyes on the two women who remained on the wall, the one still maintaining the grand illusion.

Whipman’s spear whipped sideways, smashing a murloc that wandered too near onto its ass. Although he didn’t really want to kill the confused creature, he wasn’t about to get himself killed over it.

An image of Jerry’s face, and Whipman shook his head to focus on the challenges at hand. To Ashni, he said. “A few, but I didn’t want to do them without Predator here to watch and learn-”

Faster than his eyes could follow, Ashni’s spear blurred and swatted him on the back of the head.

She stepped forward as if nothing happened. “You idiot.”

Whipman blinked. He couldn’t see her face, but he would have sworn by the sound of her voice that she was smiling…

Ashni continued to speak, derailing his train of thought. “Right now, you have more important business than teaching that lazy student of yours. He’s probably off playing around. So in his stead, act. Save him from the mess his foolishness got us all into.”

With incredible slowness, Whipman nodded. Then he straightened. Then he lowered his spear.

Thus far, he hadn’t used his skills, relying on his insights into the different stances to make up for the fact he didn’t use any mana. In essence, he had thus far been using only skill, and no “power”. So Whipman closed his eyes and reached inward, sensing the relationship that now bound him as a familiar of the Azure serpent.

When he came upon the bond inside himself, he adjusted it, once more allowing mana to seep through.

Of course, seep was a relative term. To the Azure Serpent, a small drop of mana was seeping through.

To Whipman, his body was flooded with more power than it could handle. Whipman’s eyes snapped open, the irises now glowing slightly. Stepping forward, Whipman stepped, Stormwalking in a furious, howling move, appearing right next to Dak with a clap of thunder that sent him staggering.

Around Whipman’s neck, the serpent stirred, its eyes cracking open.

***POV Predator***

Flexing my fingers, my face was all smiles. A powerful, fiery line of fury pulsed along beneath my skin where blood should have been, but I embraced my new fire. It gave me viciousness. It absorbed my frustration and annoyance.

Facing the net of lightning still crackling in front of me, I felt a powerful impulse to use my skills to break through this and crush them all, but I restrained it. I walked calmly, or at least with even steps, towards the net.

-You used a skill to wrap air around your knee while it healed.

Fury +2

Fury +2

My smile was sharp.

-Not helping, Other me.

“You know,” I said aloud, shifting my focus. “We’ve never been formerly introduced. So magey, let me introduce myself.”

I stuck my hand into the net, pressing, ignoring the pulses of electricity. The net, slowly but surely, bowed outward.

“I’m the Predator that’s going to hunt and kill you. And really, you are the one who helped the most. After all, it was only because of you…”

I let my phrase trail off, eyes still sharp as I scanned back and forth, looking for any sign of the dumb mage and his signature midnight blue coat. Currently, I couldn’t find him, but when I was out of here…

Although I was in a hurry, I trusted my useless minions enough to leave them alone for a bit. If anything, I pitied the fools that tried to attack them. My undead were like persistent cockroaches; no one had the time or effort to thoroughly eradicate them.

Not even me.

-Yea, you just use shows of force to kill a few, and cow the others.

My hand remained pressing against the crackling web, my even steps still carrying me further. There was a point to this, this fight and playing around a little extra time with magey. I didn’t really think it was necessary for this fight specifically, but I knew that in the long run, it would end up being useful.

My face grimaced, as a particularly strong surge of lightning came, causing my arm to spasm oddly. But then-

Congratulations! Due to your actions, you have learned the skill to “Lesser Lightning Resistance Lvl 1”. Your body becomes more able to withstand currents of electricity. Small chance of ignoring weaker attacks of lightning. Resistance to paralysis slightly increased.

-There it is.

-Not very exciting, but… for these, getting the first level is harder than getting the next 5, so…

Frowning, I moved my hand back and forth. Honestly, I couldn’t really tell the difference in my body’s ability to resistance lightning after getting the skill. Still annoying to deal with, but manageable.

With no more reasons to stay here, waiting, I stepped as hard as I could, cracking the earth and popping the lightning web like a bubble.

I didn’t slow down as I exited, and my high perception and processing power hummed to life, scouring every inch of my surroundings as I rushed forward, sprinting down the path towards the fort.

My eyes twitched.

-Gotcha

I flung myself to the side, racing toward the treeline on the left, where my eyes picked up a barely discernible shimmer in the air. A thread or two of midnight blue peeking around the tree trunk.

My muscles bunched and flexed, and in under a second I reached the treeline and stabbed my hand through the shield, which hissed and sparked, but parted as I forced my way through it. Exploding in a shower of splinters, the tree was the next to go, and my hand speared forward, ripping into the midnight blue cloak, aiming directly towards the vertebrae of normal creatures.

But my hand met nothing, ripping through only cloth.

He materialized behind me, a creature of warts and oozing sores. Magey was, without a doubt, quite hideous. It made a lot more sense now why he wore his cloak all the time.

-Small side note, aside from his ugliness, he has another distinctive feature; he is holding a huge mass of lightning energy that is purple at the edges, and black in the center.

-Ah, I see-

Magey opened his hands, a torrent of energy crashing forward, slamming into me and sending me flying. Where before the lightning was buzzy and angry like an insect, this lightning was strangely cold and invasive, like getting hit with a wave of icy water.

Numbness and pain rose within me as I hit the ground, still barely on my feet. Those two sensations twined together, simultaneously threatening to push me into unconsciousness. Everything was buzzing and ripping, my skin singed and smoking slightly. I couldn’t see, but that strange, obscure perception I was able to take advantage of while using Immolation giving me a general idea of the world, outside of the purple lightning.

I stumbled once more, then found my feet. Then, after I straightened up, still feeling my skin and muscles screaming. I smiled.

“This pain…” I whispered, the words drowned out by the droning. “Is far from enough, Magey.”

I began to walk forward, twitching slightly, but largely unaffected.

I had thought at first that this lightning was a superior product, a secret weapon. And by most measurements, it likely was. There was more of it, it came faster, the pulses almost constant, and the destructive power was on a whole different magnitude.

But at the same time, the rapid pulses possessed only a slightly increased amount of paralysis power.

And my skin was very, very resilient.

The edges of my smile grew crooked. I was only a few meters away from Magey, his eyes wide and some of the pus producing sores on his body drying up as I pushed forward, some discharge sparking off towards him.

Raising my hand, I leaned forward, my arm leaving the flow of energy forward, heading towards his throat.

***POV Whipman***

With power coursing through him, Whipman stepped forward towards Dak’s solitary figure, awkwardly standing back up in the rubble of Predator’s bone fort.

There was something baleful surrounding him, the aura that was earlier so nebulous given form. It was the bone surrounding Dak that made Whipman make the connection: Dak felt like death. Like his hands and attacks were the desperate grasping of a body setting into rigor mortis, and his kicks were the calculating strikes of a reaper of life.

In a strange way, it made his attacks stronger. It made the wounds he inflicted cut deeper, and bleed longer.

‘Best not let it come to that,’ Whipman decided.

His spear blurred, weaving and twining with afterimages of itself in the air towards Dak. Whipman had dedicated a lot of time in these last few days pondering the Serpent Strike and working to include it in more of his attacks, resulting in it reaching level 7.

The spear head ripped into Dak’s shoulder and then flicked backwards and down, tugging a long gash across the opposite hip, but Dak ignored it, a hand covered in that baleful aura stabbing forward.

Frowning Whipman stepped backwards. Dak’s flesh was… strange. It was oddly gummy, sticky even…

But even as he attempted to dodge, Dak surged forward, destroying his balance to keep his attack going.

Spear bending more than physically should be possible, he knocked the attack aside, instantly activating Zone of Quagmire. The blow sailed harmlessly to the side and Whipman stepped in close, to try a move that he wouldn’t normally do, but since this was Predator’s fort…

Whipman spared a glance to the side.

And since Ashni was watching…

Whipman took one hand off of the shaft of his spear and punched the back of Dak’s head in a dismissive, prideful gesture.

Whipman wasn’t sure how long it had been since he had attempted an actual blow without a spear, and he did not intend for this one to fail; he used his insights into earth to concentrate the weight of his body and momentum into an incredibly small point at the tip of his fist.

Although dispersed it wasn’t a great weight, concentrating weight and momentum increased it exponentially, as force and density of power rose together. A weight far beyond Whipman’s, beyond even Predator’s, smashed into the back of Dak’s head.

There was a moment of silence as Dak stilled, neck drooping slightly.

Whipman realized three things. The first was that his attack should have done a lot of damage. He felt the jolt go through the back of Dak’s neck and shake the brain, stunning, or even seriously injuring him.

Second, Dak’s flesh was cold.

Dak’s head twisted, the cloak falling aside and revealing grey, rotting skin and hollow eyes.

Third, non-spear combat was a bad idea.

Hands twisted into claws Dak twisted back around, reaching towards Whipman.

Ashni arrived in another explosion of air, her spear sweeping low towards the both of them with such vicious speed that Whipman hastily used Clinging Mist, his body dispersing and following the force of her blow through the space in the nearby air, reappearing behind her.

The blow swung even lower in a vicious sweep, catching Dak right above the ankles, a bone in his shin giving way with an audible crack.

Whipman gathered his spear and spared a glance for the wall. A blonde man with different colored gloves had joined the two red haired women on the wall, and was conversing with them.

But then Whipman tore his eyes away and Storm Walked, smashing out of the air next to a struggling Dak, discharging thunder. Ashni moved even faster, and both of their spears blurred, heading towards Dak’s head and heart.

“Tag me in.”

Both spears stopped dead, inches from flesh, and then were thrown back, smashed aside by an irresistible force. Whipman blinked. Jana, with her new, red hair and bunny rabbit ears, stood in front of them, her head cocked to the side.

She raised both hands, pointing at them both.

“Want to play with someone more your speed? Take this.”

Ashni’s body blurred as she threw herself to the side, but Whipman was a breath behind; the weight of a mountain smashed into his chest, throwing him directly backwards.

“Keh, a fast one. Stand still a moment.”

Spitting up blood, Whipman raised his head. He could feel the Azure tighten around his neck in discomfort for the sudden motion, but he also felt the mana leaking through their bond move around through his body, healing his wounds.

Whipman grimaced, the pain in his chest a testament to the severity of the damage he had taken. But still, there was more to do. Whipman glanced to the wall, to find that Dak was there, with Ketlia and the gloved man.

Then Dak disappeared, a strange, sore-covered creature appearing in his place.

Shaking his head, Whipman turned back to Jana, who was pointing, drilling huge furrows in the ground, smashing outward with her brute force skill as Ashni danced side to side, her agility breathtaking.

Whipman caught himself staring at Ashni’s calves and was forced to shake his head again. Not the time.

Gripping his spear tightly, Whipman surged forward towards Jana’s back.

She caught the movement out of the corner of her eye and turned towards him. Winking, she said, “Don’t worry, I’m a big girl. I can handle more than one of you at once. Get over here and play with me.”

***POV Predator***

Congratulations! Due to your actions, your skill has improved to “Lesser Lightning Resistance Lvl 2”. It takes more lightning for negative side effects from exposure to emerge. Recovering from paralysis takes less time. Direct damage dealt by lightning is decreased.

This time the increase in resistance to lightning’s effects was noticeable, and the last few inches I surged forward all at once, my hand setting in a grip around Magey’s throat-

I frowned, looking forward. Magey was gone, replaced by another cloaked figure, although this cloak was noticeably of lesser quality, and full spear holes. I frowned.

-...Ashni’s sloppy seconds. More delays.

Fury +2

Fury +2

Fury +2

...There was a certain… strange energy about this fellow, I had to admit, as he raised very dull looking eyes to meet mine. But still....

My hands blurred, smashing into his chest, where I could sense the energy was coming from.

-An Enny copycat, kinda. Except this energy is much darker…

-And sorta smelly seeming...

Under the force of my blow, the ball of energy in his chest was obliterated. The new cloaked figure fell over dead.

Snorting, I began to move forward. The fort was right over the hill and I intended to get there without anymore delays.

Even though it was quite hard to walk forward, away from a perfectly good meal. I supposed I should have some responsibility towards my minions. And although my skin was tough enough to take it, I bet Magey, wherever he disappeared to, would be able to rip through the rest of the riff raff on this path.

***POV Shuusuke***

Shuusuke was frantically looking back and forth, trying to monitor the entire battlefield. Kent still sat alone in the small clearing in the forest, in a meditative position. Most of the murlocs and undead had killed each other, and now the higher leveled ones were having duels that would undoubtedly be interesting, under other circumstances.

Now, they were just distractions from the real show.

Ashni and Whipman were finishing up their testing and were beginning to fight in earnest against Jana.

Predator casually killed another challenger and began to walk away, heading towards the fort.

Shuusuke earnestly hoped that Predator kept up this pace. That way this madness would end.

Shuusuke’s terminal began to ring, a call along his official streamer number. He picked up reflexively, relying on his bots to keep up the streaming.

“Hello?”

“Hey, it’s me.”

Shuusuke frowned, and then the voice clicked. Jen, the cute slime who was the Administrator for Predator’s team.

“Oh, cool. Howdy.” Shuusuke said, leaning back in his chair, trying to appear casual, then frantically leaning forward as the main camera spun to display the ground. After a few desperate seconds, he had everything righted, but Shuusuke was still sweating.

“I was just calling to ask how you were.” Jen send, sounding distant. “A… uh… friend came over to watch it with me, but she just left, so… I don’t know… It’s stressful being alone right now.”

“Uh, yea, that’s too bad. Yea, it must be. Uh…” Shuusuke rubbed the back of his neck. “Is… uh… is the stream alright?”

“Oh, yes,” Jen responded immediately, her voice brightening. “It’s great. It’s very- hey, what’s that?”

Shuusuke looked around, and then guiltily realized that she couldn’t see him, and was probably referring to the stream. He scanned through his displays, eyes peeled.

Then he saw it. The corpse that Predator had left for dead, Dak, twitched.

Frantically moving a camera back around, Shuusuke zoomed in, extremely excited.

This was exactly the sort of drama that viewers loved! He purposely did his best to ignore viewership numbers, but after this-

‘No, no,’ Shuusuke shook his head. ‘Stay focused.’

The view panned closer. The strange aura around Dak earlier intensified, a small flame, black at the edges and white towards the center, flickered over Dak’s face, slowly growing brighter.

Even at its brightest though, it was only the size of a candle flame. Until 3 more sprang into being around the first.

“I know what those are…” Jen whispered, causing Shuusuke to jump. He forget the line was open.

“Those are skull candles. I don’t remember its real name, but it’s a universally persecuted spirit that makes a home for itself in a dead creature’s skull. If left alone, they are pretty weak, but…”

The four black/white candle flames floated down, entering Dak’s mouth. His whole body shuddered, and then twitched. Then, ponderously, he began to stand.

“But if you blow out the candles without destroying the skull,” Jen said. “It comes back from whatever dimension skull candles are birthed from, where you briefly banished it by snuffing it out the first time. And it brings back friends.

Black and white, ethereal flames faded in and out of existence around Dak, who stumbled, but then seemed to find his balance.

Then he began to walk after Predator, to the fort in the center of this path.

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