She burned again.
Over and over and over again, so many times she had lost count. Her muscles ached, her bones throbbed, her nerves smoldered, and still she continued.
Sweat poured off her in great sheets. Her eyes, temples and great veins throbbed in time with her heart. Her vision swam, cycling between shades of red. Red was her world, red was her reality, there was nothing in the universe but her and the Red Dust.
She sucked in Energy and Red Dust. She burned. She absorbed some more. She burned even more. She felt herself melting away, becoming less—and, at the same time, becoming more. Her clothes loosened around her chest and hips, and tightened around her shoulders and arms and legs. Her cheeks sunk. When she pulled her cap off her head, she saw clumps of fallen hair.
Heat was the enemy. The air was stale and hot here, offering little relief. She hoarded her water the way a miser would hoard diamonds, drinking sparingly from her canteen. She unbuttoned her sweat-soaked clothes, letting the heat pour off her naked skin. She sat still, trying not to move.
And still she wasn’t done yet.
Body Reinforcement 2. Red Dust Pool 3. Telekinesis 4. Node after node after node flashed past. She stopped reading the descriptions, focusing only on the path she had planned, the progress she had made, the nodes she had left to go. She was cramming years, decades of Leveling into a single day, and still she had a long way to go.
With every Level, the RD and EP cost of Leveling up grew even higher. She tried to catch up by expanding her RD and EP pools, but inevitably the Leveling cost would outstrip her pools and she would have to expand them again. In the House of Amber, veterans and counselors would help a rookie plan his progression. Some Priests of Mara also offered similar services, tapping into their intrinsic link with the Goddess to provide fresh insights. Here, she was alone. She would have to proceed carefully but decisively. And there was no room for error.
Node by node, path by path, her Skill Web filled out. Every illuminated node showed her where she had been, every highlighted node showed her the way forward. There was still a long way to go, but with every Level, the pathway shortened.
So she burned.
And burned some more.
At last, she fulfilled the requirements for the Ranger class. The House would mark such an achievement with a ceremony. They would assemble everyone in the Ascendant’s party, everyone who had helped him attain such august status, announce the advancement, and invite the honoree to progress. The Church of Mara held similar rituals too, for civilians and non-affiliated Ascendants.
She was alone.
And she had more important things to worry about than pomp and ceremonies.
She purchased the node.
More fire. More wriggling. More itching. More of the sensations she’d experienced earlier. By now she’d grown inured to them, welcoming them as marks of advancement. But this time the sensations were concentrated in her head, in her brain, the Red Dust rewiring her synapses.
They are upgrading my Seal and Link, she realized.
The sensations faded, leaving behind… nothing.
Of course there was nothing. It was just another node on the Skill Web. What else should she expect? Confetti and applause? A sword salute? A choir of angels descending from Heaven to whisk her to the side of the Goddess?
Nonetheless, she marked the occasion with a swig of water.
Then she realized she was running low. There were only a few mouthfuls of precious liquid left in her canteen—and there was no sign of water in sight.
Marco told her that the best way to store water was inside her body. Another veteran insisted on always maintaining a reserve for emergencies. Both men were right. And she still had more Levels to go.
She absorbed more Red Dust. She drank more Energy. She breathed.
With every Level, she grew increasingly conscious of the changes within her body. Muscles breaking down and reknitting into something stronger. Bone fracturing and refusing in instants. Blood vessels bulging from taut skin. Her mental map expanded, taking in the pier, the shaft, the stairs, the sea of Red Dust. She felt them, knowing instinctively the range to a point of interest, sensing and interpreting the volume of empty space between her and it, touching the surfaces of objects with nothing but the air between them. It was not a knowledge that could be described in words, only a truth that must be experienced with the entirety of the being.
Perhaps it was a side effect of meditating alone in the crimson twilight. Maybe it was the natural effect of purchasing so many Awareness nodes. Or it could simply be a byproduct of advancing to the Ranger class. Whatever it was, she allowed those sensations to pass through her, focusing her energies and attention on the pathways ahead of her.
Then she noticed that her EP and RD bars were graying out.
They’d started graying after the first ten, maybe fifteen Levels. With every successive Level, the gray crept forward, shortening her bar. Bit by bit, little by little. It wasn’t enough to deny her the next Level, so she continued burning and Leveling.
But now, the bars were halfway gone.
It was fatigue, she knew. Normally this happened after an Ascendant cast many Powers in rapid succession, or fought for long hours nonstop. It wasn’t just fatigue of the body, but of the mind and soul as well. The Church taught that Power came from the strength of your entire being, so of course when an Ascender grew tired, he became less powerful.
She wanted nothing more than to rest. To take a break. To close her eyes into a deep, dreamless sleep.
She couldn’t stop.
She was still in hostile territory. She had no comrades to set watch. There was no telling if the Anguillines would send a party to hunt her down, or to scoop up more Red Dust. Sleeping here would be a fatal mistake.
She gritted her teeth. Gathered her energies.
And burned some more.
More and more nodes lit up. More and more Power flooded her. More and more options appeared in her menu. Yet what Power she had was hamstrung by her slowly shrinking stock of EP and RD. Soon, fatigue would cancel out any improvements from buying EP and RD nodes.
That was alright. She just needed enough to unlock Flight and escape the Well.
Ten nodes to go. Nine. Eight. She could see the end. She pressed on. Seven. Six.
And pain lanced through her brain.
She sucked in a breath. Massaged her temples. Breathed some more.
Her body thrummed with vitality, with raw power waiting to be unleashed. Her mind was worn down. Her spirit was a flickering flame, on the verge of extinguishing in a gentle wind. She was fresh yet fatigued, empowered yet depleted. Existing in the in-between state between them. She was burned out.
She pressed on.
Five nodes left. Then four. Three. And her entire body ached, a deep ache that radiated from her marrow to flood her being. Staying upright and awake sapped her will. She fought off the temptation to lie down, to close her eyes, to sleep.
She was so close, so close.
Lightning racked her body. Her nerves erupted in raging volcanoes of pure pain. Her muscles seized up, her joints locked. Fire raged in her blood.
In her final moments of conscious control, she tucked her chin, taking the impact on the enhanced muscles of her suddenly-broad back. Splayed out on the hard floor, she stared at the dimly-lit ceiling so high above, utterly motionless.
She could not move. She was not physically capable of moving. Her limbs would not respond to her will. Even thinking required effort. She felt like she had been hollowed out, like a watermelon scraped clean to leave only a dried-out rind.
Long, full and deep, feeling her stomach rise and fall, her rib cage expanding and contracting. Energy trickled through her skin, her tissues greedily lapping up every last drop. Little by little, bit by bit, the pain and the burning blunted. The sensations were still there, but now she could move. She could think.
She could burn.
A motherly voice, gentle and warm and pure, filled her mind. It soothed her, healed her, filled her from the inside out.
“Who are you?” she whispered.
I am that I am.
Luisa sat up.
Fresh pain shot through her, forcing her back down.
You’ve worked hard. It’s time to rest.
“How are you speaking to me?”
Long have I watched over you. I rejoiced when you entered the Church. I celebrated when you accepted My gifts. I watched you as you roamed the wastes with your companions, slaying the evil and protecting the innocent. I have watched you grow. How you have grown, so fast and so far! And now, having advanced to Ranger, you have enhanced your Link and Seals. Now, at last, you are able to hear me directly.
Luisa’s eyes widened.
“You can speak to me?”
The Goddess laughed, the way a parent would laugh in the face of a child’s silliness.
I have always been speaking to you. Through the menu, through the gauges, through your Powers. For most of your time as an Ascendant, you knew My will only through the feedback granted by My system. Now you can finally hear My voice.
“Oh… I never knew…”
Perhaps you should have paid more attention in Mass.
Luisa laughed guiltily.
The Goddess laughed also.
You have done well. Your spirit, your fortitude and your courage is the essence of legends. But now you have reached your limits. It is time for you to rest.
In her mind’s eye, Luisa saw the Skill Web. There was only one more node left. It blazed blue, calling out to her. One more burn. One more Level. And then she could take Flight.
You are on the threshold of burning out. I will not have My child destroy herself.
“There’s only one node left!”
You are one node away from becoming an Aberration.
Luisa’s heart jumped in her chest. Her breath stopped. Icy water passed through her veins, yet somehow it made the burning worse.
“What do you mean?”
Aberrations are born from men who have burned too much Red Dust, far too fast for their bodies to handle. In the naked pursuit of power, they have thrown away everything that makes them human. Their minds, their spirits, and then their bodies. In burning up their souls, they lose control of the transformation process, and become horribly mutated monsters, bereft of all reason.
“I’ve never heard of this before!”
It is knowledge usually restricted to Advanced Ascendants. Those of lower Levels usually do not absorb so much Red Dust in such a short time. They have no fear of becoming a monster. But the higher you climb, the easier it is to fall—and the harder and longer the fall.
“But my circumstances are unique.”
Yes. Which is why I am speaking to you now.
Warmth and gratitude filled her heart. The Church taught that the Goddess watches over all, loving every single human as a mother, the Mother of Mothers, but it was up to Man to forge a lasting relationship with Her. Here and now, she understood what the Church meant.
She was not worthy of such personal attention. All she could do was become better.
Then an ugly thought filled her breath.
“Are you saying Aberration Sabaia was once human?”
Yes. An Ascendant, just like you, but not affiliated with any House. During an expedition with a party of independent Ascendants, they discovered the Well. In their haste and greed, they gulped down the Red Dust, caring not for their limits. All of them swiftly became Aberrations. They fell upon each other in mutual combat.
Sabaia was the only survivor.
“And if I continue to Level up, I would join them in their fate.”
“Did you warn them?”
Yes. They refused to listen.
“I am listening.”
Wonderful. I cannot and will not restrict you from pursuing Flight. I am merely asking that you wait until your body has recovered. Can you do this?
A secret thrill ran through Luisa’s heart. The Goddess Herself had thanked her! She’d never imagined such a thing could ever occur! Was she dreaming? Had she imagined that?
The Goddess laughed.
You have not.
I can hear your thoughts through your Link. You don’t have to speak out loud.
Luisa blinked again.
I didn’t know that.
Had you read the detailed description of your upgraded Link, you would have. This is one more reason the Houses do not encourage rapid burning. You miss the little details.
Hush. Rest. But not for too long. You have company.
A presence encroached upon her mental map. Rust squealed and metal screeched. Vibrations traveled through the floor.
The elevator was descending.
And in it was a gang of eight Anguillines.
She sat up.
Pain pulsed through stiffened muscles. Her joints complained. Her eyes were rough and gritty, her mouth dry as dust.
She was in no shape to fight. Yet.
Rest now. Fight later.
A thought pulled her towards her menu. There, among the many, many, many options available to her as a newly-minded Ranger, was the skill Vigilant Meditation. She glanced at the description.
Restore body and mind while remaining alert against sudden attacks. Reduces fatigue by up to 75%.
It was an active Power, but it cost nothing. Ideal for this situation.
She straightened her back. Placed her hands in her lap.
And activated Vigilant Meditation.
Her body wound down. Her muscles relaxed. Her breath deepened.
Bit by bit, fatigue bled from her EP and RD bars.
Her attention on her breath, she felt her skin cool off, her heart calm down, her energies settle. A heavy ball grew in her belly, her energy stores slowly building back up. Vitality returned to her flesh, to her joints, to her nerves.
Her mental map was still active. The elevator was still descending. Yet she did not psych up like she normally did. She remained calm, present, watchful, and totally relaxed.
The elevator’s descent grew louder, angrier, threatening to pierce her meditative bubble. The monsters shifted, positioning themselves by the doors, ready to rush out in a raging mob.
Marco had taught her the dangers of fighting multiple enemies at once. While focused on a single threat, the others could easily flank her. Many an overconfident Ascendant had fallen to such a ploy. It didn’t matter how many Levels an Ascendant possessed; death was death, whether it came at the hand of an Aberration or a nameless minion.
She had to change the game.
The elevator was now one floor above her. She rose to her feet with unconscious grace. The burning was gone, but a deep-seated weariness remained. She grew cognizant of a sudden lightness and ease, her body moving as a single unified machine, ready to impose her will upon the universe.
Smiling, she drew her sword.
The elevator descended to eye level.
She extended her left palm, aiming it at the doors, and fired two Powers at once.
Red Dust streamed out of her hand, separating into four rivulets. Floating in mid-air, the Red Dust coalesced into a row of clouds, shaping in conformance to her intent. The clouds condensed, hardened, sharpened, becoming Blood Blades.
Glowing with power, they were all blade, no handle, shaped like leaves, broad bodies narrowing to a fine point. She sensed them in her mental map, as though they were extensions of her body, ready to respond to her will. She flipped them to the horizontal, pointing towards the elevator.
The doors opened.
The mob of eight Anguillines poured out. Armed with short spears, they advanced behind a wall of sharpened bone and ferocious howls.
She fired Telekinesis.
Her Blood Blades lanced through them, blasting through the front and back rows and out the other side. Whipping back around, they scythed through the assembled monsters, effortlessly lopping off hands and heads.
She imagined herself holding every blade with invisible hands, swinging and thrusting as she pleased. Not too long ago, she had difficulty handling her sword. Now she wielded five.
Their fuel exhausted, the blades disintegrated into a cloud of fine dust, showering the pile of corpses.
And an Anguilline rose shakily to its feet, throwing off the bodies of its brothers, spear grasped in hand.
A blade had perforated its right breast. It must have thrown itself down immediately after, avoiding the fate of its kin. Now it roared in berserker fury and rushed towards her.
It was slow. Her brain captured its every movement, from the moment it chambered the spear by its right hip to the instant it torqued around to launch the spear at her throat.
No, it wasn’t slow. It was moving at top speed. Her brain had merely sped up, processing and interpreting data faster than ever.
Stepping to the right, she torqued to the left, meeting the shaft with the flat of her blade. Her left hand reached over her right to check the spear. She swung her sword through a swift crescent, curving low before rising high, taking off the Anguilline’s left hand from below. Advancing into the blood spray, she seized the blade in her left hand and drove the point into its throat. The blade sank deep, spearing into its spine. Pulling the blade free, she slapped the monster in the face.
It tumbled away, falling among the heap of broken bodies.
Just this morning, facing down a charging mob alone was suicide. Unthinkable, even. Now, she had wiped out eight Anguillines without even breaking a sweat.
She cleaned the blade on an Anguilline’s loincloth, put it aside, then checked her Seal. Where it was once an unremarkable circle surrounded by spokes, it now sprawled across the back of her hand, a labyrinth of black branches woven into intricate designs. She barely recognized it, but it was an indisputable reflection of who she was now. With a soft inhale, she checked her status.
She’d gained 80 Levels in a day. Eighty! How many Ascendants could boast of such a feat? She was now the strongest Ascendant in her expedition, in the House of Ember.
The Aberration was stronger yet. It was so absurdly overpowered, the system couldn’t measure its Level.
It didn’t matter. She didn’t have to fight it. Escaping was good enough.
Holding out her hand, she absorbed the Red Dust from the bodies, replacing the Dust she had consumed. The rest she gathered into a sphere the size of a chicken’s egg.
Create phylactery, she willed.
The outer edges of the sphere flashed to white, taking on the appearance of fine crystal. Lifting it in her hand, she discovered that it felt unusually dense for its size.
Turning a blob of RD into a phylactery naturally consumed Dust and EP. Absorbing it later wasn’t as efficient as harvesting it directly from monsters. But its portability and safety made up for it.
Slipping the phylactery into her pack, she looked inside the elevator. An ancient cart held a score of barrels. She supposed that once the Anguillines were done with her, they would have collected some of the Red Dust here for their own consumption.
Which in turn meant that there were more monsters upstairs, waiting for her.
Using the elevator was a no-go. The enemy could simply jam the car in between floors. Without Flight, she’d be trapped. Then, two or three days later, the rest of the Anguillines could bring up the elevator and harvest her desiccated corpse. An ignoble end for an Angel.
With her mental map, she sensed the interior of the elevator, identifying the control panel. Then, using Telekinesis, she hit the button for the top floor. As the doors closed, she readied a bolus of Red Dust, tossed it atop the barrels, and infused it with her will.
The Red Dust bubbled to life. It flattened into a hard disk, then grew claws to dig into the surface of the barrel. Once the construct sensed a living being entering its blast radius, it would spew a payload of razors into the victim’s face. Just one of the many traps available to the Ranger Class.
Stepping back, she looked up the stairs. It was so tall, so high, she couldn’t see the top. It would be a long, long climb, longer than any she had ever attempted in her life. But it was the only way out of the Well. She just had to do it.
She checked the remains of the Anguillines. She found loincloths and bone weapons, but no water or rations. She hadn’t expected anything else.
She drained the last of her canteen. There was just enough water to wet her throat and unstick her tongue. From here on out, it was going to get rough.
She checked her sword. She adjusted the straps of her backpack. She exhaled sharply.
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