The wind whistled past her ears. War cries and furious howls carried from above. Cannon fire and blasts passed through the gash in the ceiling.
By the dimming light of the dying flares, she saw nothing but darkness. Darkness yawned before her. Darkness encircled her. Darkness embraced her.
Twisting side to side, extending her arms and legs, she reached for something, anything, she could hold on to. But there was nothing. Nothing she could grab to arrest her fall. She was too far away from the walls, and she lacked the Power of Flight. She was going to hit the ground at terminal velocity, and there was nothing that would—
Red light winked at her, rushing to greet her.
In her mental map, she sensed a sudden softness, a sea of softness, at the very bottom of the shaft. Whatever it was, even if she struck at such speeds, it would be like striking concrete.
But she had a chance.
A slim one, but a chance.
She fired Force Screen. A cloud of Red Dust billowed from her, surrounding her in a scarlet globe. It would bleed off the force from anything that entered its volume, dispersing the energy across its surface and falling apart if need be.
It wouldn’t be enough to save her.
Maybe if she had reinforced it ten times, or even three times. But she lacked the EP for that, never mind RD. Already she felt her temples throbbing, her insides burning, her vision fading out.
Gathering the last of her energies, she activated telekinesis.
This time she imagined a great hand cradling her, pulling her up. Not so hard that the whiplash would kill her, just enough to slow her down and soften the inevitable blow. She curled herself into a ball, orienting her feet downwards, aiding the process.
The red floor filled her sight. She amped up the power, harder and faster, throwing all that she had left into a final Psi burst.
Pain lanced through her brain. Her nerves threatened to shatter. Her synapses screamed. She screamed, a scream from the depths of her being, emptying herself out, throwing her fate into the hands of the Goddess, steeling her soul for—
The Force Screen struck the red floor. It absorbed the gargantuan force of impact and instantly dispersed in a swarm of Gray Dust, spreading across her body, becoming a last-ditch cushion against the inevitable. Her telekinesis finally gave out, and in the moments before impact she braced herself and closed her mouth.
The world slammed into her. Raw force smashed through her feet, her legs, her body, her head. Then the floor gave way behind her, plunging her down into lightless depths.
I’m sinking? What the hell?!
Warm, viscous fluid surrounded her. For a second she’d thought she’d been dunked into a vat of blood. But it wasn’t right. Blood was… wet. She was dry. Whatever this substance was, it flowed around and off her. It wasn’t a liquid. It was… familiar.
Could it be…?
She willed her body to relax. All tension fled. Slowly she stretched her limbs. Pain shot through battered muscles and nerves, but her bones weren’t broken.
And she floated.
Her head broke through the surface. Bobbing in the fluid, she looked around in the faint red light. She spied what appeared to be an island, roughly in the direction of the door that Sabaia had guarded. She kicked off with her feet and drew her arms through wide circles, propelling herself in the direction of the shore.
The fluid flowing between her fingers felt strange. It was like sand suspended in oil, rough and gritty, but not so much that it irritated the skin. It shaped itself to her body, perfectly molding around her. Deep below, she felt a distant bubbling, the sensation carried through the fluid and up against her suspiciously-dry clothes.
An impulse overcame here. She went completely still, touched her mind to the fluid around her, and sent a command.
A mass of fluid gripped her tight and propelled her through the red lake. Warm red sprays marked her passage. The fluid glowed brighter, releasing heat as she passed. She was fast, faster than she had ever moved before.
Her heart leapt in her chest. Pure exhilaration shot through her being. A grin spread across her face.
The island came into view. Now that she was closer, she saw that it was actually a pier. Three walkways in a row, extending from a metal platform. Guardrails enclosed the structure, except at the end of the walkways. There, short flights of steps led down into the fluid.
Into the Red Dust.
The Ancients had built structures like these to manufacture and store Red Dust. She was seeing only the surface of the Red Dust; the reservoir must plunge deep into the bowels of the Earth, far beyond her sight.
A massive shaft anchored the far end of the pier. An elevator shaft, leading up into the darkened ceiling. A large ‘S20’ had been painted on the doors. Beside the shaft was a flight of stairs. She guessed that if the elevator broke down, whoever was trapped down here could still climb to safety—though it would be a horrendously long climb.
Looking up, she saw more piers above her head, set at regular intervals. Long, long ago, she guessed, the Well had been filled almost to the brim. With the passage of aeons, the Well had been drained down to the twentieth level. And yet, there was still a wealth of Red Dust here, more Red Dust than anyone could consume in a lifetime.
The sounds of combat faded out. The light above vanished. The bottom of the Well was plunged into a red-tinged gloom. Pricking her ears, she heard… nothing.
The fighting had stopped.
She prayed that it was because the survivors had fled to safety.
She knew that they weren’t going to come get her.
Not immediately, that is. Standard operating procedure was to fall back, cordon the area, then summon reinforcements. Against an Aberration, they would only strike once they were sure they had an overwhelming advantage. It could take days to summon such a strike force. Weeks. Even months.
She had to save herself.
Sitting on the pier, she laid out her gear, performing a quick inventory. She had her trusty sword and scabbard. Two canteens of water, one empty, the other almost full. Field knife. Mess kit. Folding shovel. Flashlight. Water purification kit. First aid kit. Two days’ worth of field rations. Poncho and groundsheet. A change of dry clothing. Spare socks.
That was it.
She wasn’t going to be able to wait until reinforcements arrived. Red Dust was the stuff of miracles, but it did not nourish or hydrate the body. It would simply be absorbed by the cells and placed in storage. There was a Power that allowed an Ascender to condense water from air, but of course she didn’t have it.
She would have to find a way out.
She would have to climb to the top of the Well, face the Aberration, then win through to the exit.
Suicide, for a Level 8 Psi Scout.
But… she didn’t have to stay that way.
The Red Dust called out to her. Here was power. Power beyond the dreams of most mortals, beyond even the reckoning of the Ancients. More than enough power to crush even the most terrible Aberration. Even if she couldn’t defeat Sabaia, she would surely have enough power to break out of the Well and escape into the swamp. That was surely almost as good as a victory.
She put her things away, then drew her attention to the back of her right hand. A small gray Seal was tattooed into her flesh, bestowed by Mara through her Church, identifying her as an Ascendant. The center of the design was a small circle, shot through with spokes. As an Ascendant gained Levels, the tattoo would grow in size and complexity.
Closing her eyes, she connected her mind to the Seal. Her Skill Web surfaced to the front of her consciousness. It was a map of the wondrous gifts the Goddess bestowed upon Her worthy Chosen. Bright lines connected circular nodes in a dense, intricate web, showing progression and pathways to mastery. Many nodes had multiple notches, indicating the potential for repeated upgrades.
An Ascendant’s Level reflected the number of nodes he had purchased. Some chose to go deep, repeatedly purchasing the same nodes to maximize their stats. Others went wide, gaining as many Powers as they could. The wise Ascendant planned his build early in his career for maximum efficiency.
The way to gain Levels was to burn Red Dust.
By burning his store of Red Dust, an Ascendant infused his body with Red Dust. The Dust would become entwined with his body, able to sculpt mere flesh and bone into something else. Something better.
It was the fundamental dilemma facing an Ascendant. Burn Red Dust to gain long-term power at the risk of not having enough for emergencies, or reserve a store of Red Dust for combat but hamper your growth. Ascendants early in their career, like Luisa, had the gravest struggle, since the Leveling up usually required burning the equivalent of their total RD capacity.
Leveling up was a tedious process for early Ascendants. After felling a monster, she had to top off her Red Dust, then slowly burn it bit by bit, drawing more Dust to replace what she’d expended. It was House policy. All Ascendants in the field must have a full store of Red Dust before setting out, and would seek to maintain it wherever possible. She understood why, but Ascendants in the House usually progressed much slower than those of other Houses.
But now… she didn’t have to worry about a lack of Red Dust.
Every Ascendant’s Skill Web was personal, though all Ascendants shared many commonalities. The Body branch focused on augmenting physical capabilities, while the Mind branch improved mental prowess, and the Energy branch governed one’s ability to use Red Dust. The fourth branch was the simplest and most linear of the various branches, covering progression through the Ascendant’s class. The last branch, the Psi branch, was unique only to Psis, showing the powers that best suited the Ascendant.
Her eight nodes shone bright green. Two on the Scout branch, three on the Psi branch, then one each on the remaining three branches. As a Psi, her talents were rare, and the more Psi Powers she gained, the more valuable she would become. Between that and the Scout branch, she could carve a niche for herself in the House of Ember.
…Not that it would matter if she didn’t make it out of this mess.
There were countless nodes to choose from. She couldn’t choose them all. Most Ascendants rarely ever managed to completely fill out their Skill Web, even after decades. To survive, she had to pick the skills that would help her overcome this trial. Of course, an Ascendant could respec himself—the Goddess was wise and understood the need for flexibility—but it could only be safely done in a Church. For all intents and purposes, she only had one shot at this.
Scrolling through the Skill Web, she paid careful attention to the descriptions. Increased speed, strength and stamina was nice, but what she really needed was something that could help her out of this emergency. She could become as strong as an Aberration, but it would do her no good if she couldn’t survive.
An entry caught her eye.
Ascendant gains the Power of flight. Using wing constructs, Ascendant is able to propel themselves through the air.
She looked up. The gash in the ceiling was barely visible from here. But it was a straight shot to the chamber. And from there, a quick turn and she could head out the door. Or confront the beast. Whichever path she chose, she would have options.
She’d heard stories of Ascendants who had become Angels. They strode along the battlefield like gods, striking from the air, ascending to safety, then swooping down again. They went anywhere they pleased, meting out justice and punishment everywhere in the world. Now was her chance to join them.
But Flight was a Mastery-level Power. It was locked behind multiple Power requirements. She had to master two pathways on the Psi branch, Telekinesis and Construct, as well as the Awareness pathway on the Class branch. She supposed that made sense: Telekinesis for propulsion, Construct for the wings, Awareness for safe flight. However, to master Awareness, she needed to class up to Ranger. Master Ranger, at that. That in turn was hard-locked behind stat requirements on the Body, Mind and Energy branches.
She couldn’t settle for the minimum requirements either. Constructing wings would consume 800 points of Red Dust, and another 800 Energy Points. Then, flight itself would consume 100 EP and 100 RD per second. To actually use Flight, she’d have to expand her RD and EP reservoirs to heretofore unheard of levels, levels beyond what she even thought was possible.
No wonder high-level Ascendants who gained Flight were called Angels: they stood as angels to men.
Her route was clear. First she would focus on hitting the minimum requirements for Flight. Then, after purchasing that Power, she would steadily build out her ED and EP capacity. First go wide, then go deep.
There were so many other Powers on the Skill Web. They called out to her, each clamoring to be purchased. Had she time and resources, perhaps she might explore them. But not here. Not now. She recalled Marco’s words from the early days of her apprenticeship.
“Don’t learn too many Powers at once. If you do not know how to use it effectively when it counts, you might as well not have it at all. Master one Power before moving on to the next.”
Learning how to fly would be a full-time job and then some. She would have no teachers, and she couldn’t count on miraculously mastering the Power once she purchased it. Oh, sure, she would know how to fire it and use it. The Goddess’ Gifts came with the knowledge needed to operate them. But there was a world of difference between intellectually knowing something and experiencing it for yourself.
Then a Power caught her eye.
Create a stable vessel of Red Dust. Only the Ascendant may consume the Phylactery.
Yes. This was important. It was how higher-order Ascendants stored excess Red Dust. Sure, it could be kept in a container, but it was still unstable. Any random person can quaff it, or worse, use a Power to activate it and turn it against you. A Phylactery was hard-coded to its creator, and so could not be interfered with.
She highlighted the nodes she wanted to purchase on her Skill Web. It would help her track her progress, keep her from being sidelined down useless pathways. When she was ready, she extended her arm and reached for the Red Dust.
A stream of fluid leapt out of the lake and into her waiting palm. She drank it up, letting it soak into her skin. When her RD gauge topped out, she rested her hands in her lap and closed her eyes.
On the inhale, she absorbed oxygen and Energy from the air. On the exhale, she released her thoughts and worries. She willed herself drinking in Energy through her skin, absorbing it into the essence of her being, joining it with her store of Red Dust.
Her EP gauge slowly filled.
Burning Red Dust consumed EP as well. With what she had in mind, he needed all the Energy she could get.
At last, the EP gauge was full. In her mind’s eye, both EP and RD bars glowed. She was ready to Level up.
She breathed in. Out. In.
“Burn Red Dust,” she said.
Deep in her belly, a fire ignited. The heat spread throughout her body, setting every cell ablaze. Her muscles burned, her nerves burned, her bones burned, she burned. Sweat poured off her face. Her skin crawled, her tissues crackled, her blood boiled. She was the center of a pyre, and she could not escape.
The EP and RD bars steadily ran down. And still she burned in the heat of an indescribable, invisible, impossible flame. She swore she felt her body changing, her meat fusing with the Dust, the very essence of her being transforming into something else, something different, something far more powerful.
Power. She needed power. She would do everything it took to gain that power.
The bars ran dry. The fire cooled, but a lingering warmth remained. Her clothes were plastered to her body. Her forehead felt fever-hot. In the depths of her mind, she sensed text appear.
You have reached Level 9!
She opened her Skill Web. Purchasable nodes pulsed with green light, drawing her attention. The remainder remained dull and gray.
Which to select first?
Didn’t matter. She’d have to pick all of them eventually. But the most useful one was…
RD Capacity 1
She selected the node.
Her flesh writhed beneath her skin. Lightning raced through her nervous system. Her breath quickened. Patches of red blossomed here and there, before quickly fading out. It wasn’t pleasant, but it wasn’t uncomfortable either. She stayed with the sensation, being completely in the present, allowing the feelings to pass.
At last, it was over. The node glowed in white, joining other purchased nodes. She wiped the sweat from her brow. Steadied herself with her breath. Sipped from her canteen.
Then extended her palm to begin the process anew.
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