Book 1: Chapter 36 – “The D is for Duck…”
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QAQ I rewrote this thing three times! THREE! orz... On the Plus side, this thing's 4.6k words, Enjoy! Still, this one kicked my Butt. Hope it was worth the Wait!

No one knew where the Spiritual Technique called "The Grand Awakening" came from. Some claimed it was part of an Ancient legacy from before History itself was ever written down. Others proposed it had always existed, that it was a natural world law. Others claimed it was part of some grand conspiracy designed to subservient other beings. No matter its origin, however, its importance to Halirosa and the entire world could not be understated.

For it was through the Grand Awakening that an ordinary Spirit Beast could become something more. It was through this technique that a Spirit Beast could become an Awakened Beast. The effect was several, but the most important was the granting of True Sapience and a humanoid form. Even the decedents of high Practitioners of the Grand Awakening would benefit from these changes, and through the generations, these changes would compound, eventually giving rise to the "Kin" races. The Highest Practitioners are even said to be able to take on a fully human form, though few chose to do so.

One of the Five Great Pillars, the Awakened Spirit Beast Clan, was the primary controller of the technique and was their main sore of recruitment. This, in turn, was the main reason for their conflict with the Adventure's City-State of Halirosa, who advocated for its free and natural distribution. Of course, both sides claimed to be in the right. The Awakened Spirit Beast Clan claimed that unrestricted distribution would only lead to weaker Awakened Beasts causing chaos and destruction, its improper use leading to deviation and degradation of the mind, while Halirosa claimed that the Clan used the technique as a chain and leash to control its members.

On the other hand, everyone knew the origins of the technique called "Feral Heart"; some people are never happy with the status quo and consistently seek new power, no matter the consequences. Many would call it the antithesis of the Great Awakening, but in reality, it was the other side of the coin. Where the Great Awakening expanded a Spiritual Beast's mind and cognition, Feral Heart reached into their core and amplified their Bloodline's power, at the cost of their ability to think and act clearly, relying more on their instincts.

Most civilian Awakened Beasts would focus only on their Grand Awakening. Only Adventurers would often practice Feral Heart as well, the ability to shift into what had come to be known as a "War Form," if temporally, too good to pass up for most.

So when Ann suddenly went from being a somewhat small, black-haired young human woman to a 9-foot-tall half-bear creature with obsidian fur and a muzzle filled with four-inch long fangs, suffice to say, it wasn't just the thugs who were surprised.

"Ann! wait!"

 Jonah, the sizeable young man behind whom most of the children had huddled, cried out.

"About time!"

In contrast, Bartholomew grinned from ear to ear, his Cheshire grin lingering in the air as he took a step back and faded into the shadows beside the Chapel.

Ann, for her part, gave an air-shaking roar and charged into the still-stunned group of Thugs, managing to bat a few to the side with a massive paw swipe before they rallied and drew their weapons.

Sister Audrea gave an audible sigh, rubbing the bridge of her nose with one hand and gesturing outward with her other. At that moment, small stone pillars shot from the ground and into the guts of a few charging thugs who thought their chances with the seeming weak woman better than the giant bear girl. The thugs were sent hurling into the air a few feet before coming down hard, groaning in pain as they clutched their stomachs. Before they could recover, the stone underneath rolled up and over them till only their heads remained visible.

Bartholomew jogged through the ally streets, quick as the wind and as silent as shadows. He wasn't a big lad by any stretch of the imagination; even some kids several years younger than him were starting to pass him in mass and height. That didn't surprise him much, honestly. Bartholomew found he barely had time to rest most days. The Sisters always said he'd never grow if he didn't get some rest.

That was fine by Bartholomew; there was always so much that needed doing. That's how it'd always been, as far back as the young man could remember. Taking care of the disabled, ex-adventure "Uncle" who'd raised him and Thomas. Making sure Thomas's unearned pride didn't get him killed when their Uncle vanished. Fighting for scraps as they wandered from slum to slum. Finally settling down in the Temple Orphanage, watching over the other children from the shadows. Life had never been easy, and Bartholomew doubted it ever would be.

But that was fine. He might not have been the brightest, biggest, or most handsome, but he would keep pressing forward, one foot in front of the other, just like their Uncle had taught them. And when he finally fell into the ditch that would be his grave, he could smile, knowing there were people who would remember him.

Besides, being small wasn't all bad; it came with some advantages too. Case in point as he squeezed through the tiny gap between two nearby buildings. He popped out unseen behind one of the thugs near the back, a rough-looking woman with a crossbow. Using his nimble limbs, he pressed himself against each wall, shimmied up the sides until he was above the Thug's head, and withdrew a small, black needle. With a quick wrist flick, the needle lodged itself into the base of the Thug's neck.

The crossbow-wielding Thug swerved instantly, firing into the empty alley behind them without hesitation. A look of confusion crossed her face as she stared into the empty space his bolt had passed through. A moment later, her eyes landed on the form of the small boy wedged above her as he grinned and waved back. She frowned and loaded her crossbow to fire again... only for her eyes to suddenly roll to the back of her head and collapse, a black foam on her lips.

As Bartholomew slid down the wall and retrieved his needle, he smirked.

No, being small wasn't too bad at all.

Ann swung her large paw at another group of thugs who'd attacked her home, only for the man's form to blur and reappear several feet away. She tsked internally; even the thugs in an Adventurer's town were a step above other places. However, that wasn't much of a surprise since most of the criminal world in Halirosa were failed Adventures. That wasn't to say all of the active Adventures were squeaky clean, either, Coldfinger being a perfect example, but someone walking into the Halirosa slums expecting to find untrained riffraff would soon find themselves stripped naked and dumped in a ditch for the rats.

Ann roared in pain as a few crossbow bolts hit her flank. The bolts were superficial, mostly stopped by her thick fur and hide, but they still stung and distracted her enough for a large thug carrying a hammer to approach and swing at her. She barely blocked in time, only for the man to suddenly kick out under her guard. Ann braced for the impact, but the kick that came was weak, for, at the instant of impact, a small pillar of stone shot out and slammed into the Hammer Thug's supporting knee with a sickening crack. The Thug's cry of pain was silenced as a sudden back paw from Ann sent him spinning.

The panting Bear-Girl turned for a split second towards the Chapel, only to see Sister Audrea casually flicking her fingers like a conductor as dozens of stone pillars met, charging thugs one after another. If the head poking out of the ground were anything to go by, more of Thomas's thugs had been hiding nearby. Thomas, more than anyone, would have known they'd be needed if Sister Audrea decided to get... rough.

She turned her attention back to her opponents, a flame burning in her chest. Why couldn't people like this just leave her alone? She came here to get away from people like this. To get away from the fighting and death, away from people who only knew how to use, steal, and destroy people like Him. The more she thought about that man, the more the rage and frustration burned in her chest, until with a roar, all of the fur on her body stood up and shifted from obsidian black to a deep blood red. Then she charged once more into the fray. Her War Form might not be as complete as His, but she had her own tricks.

She wouldn't let people like this take away her home, her family.

Not again.

Jonah struck out with an open palm, blowing back the Thug who'd managed to slip by Sister Audrea. The large young man stood firming in the doorway of the old Chapel, unmoving and unwavering as the Thugs attempted to get at the children behind him. Even as the various cuts and bruises piled up, he took not a single step from the doorway, the gaggle of children cheering from his shadow. 

Most people assumed Jonah was kind of... dim. Few said anything, true, his overbearing size and rough appearance helping to silence tongues, but he heard the whispers, even among the kids of the Orphanage. He rarely spoke unless spoken to and often took his time to do things, but that was just how he did things. He wasn't lazy by any means; he just didn't see the need to always be rushing about. Bartholomew was like that, and while he saw the small young man as one of his closest friends, he couldn't help but be exhausted watching the man go about his day. 

It was part of the reason Jonah took it upon himself to watch out for Ann and Bartholomew, despite being a few years younger (not that anyone ever believed him when Bartholomew told them he was 20). Ann, the prim and proper young girl who hid a barely contained, seething rage just under the surface, and Bartholomew, the kind young man who insisted on carrying the weight of the world even when he didn't have to. They might have been damaged, everyone in their Orphanage was in some way, but they were family. His family.

No, Jonah wasn't stupid. Far from it. He listened and watched more than anyone else. He understood people, both the good and the bad. He might not have been very sociable by usual standards, but that didn't mean he didn't understand things. Suddenly, dozens of hexagonal shields of energy sprung up around the doorway, just as three arrows slammed into it once after another.

Case in point. Halirosa was an Adventurer's City, which meant that anyone, from the lowliest worker to the Speaker of the Senate, had SOME form of Path. Though that didn't mean all Paths were equal. More so in a place like this, where all kinds gather in search of fame and power. There were old half-jokes about Hidden Masters roaming the slums, living like beggars as they searched for disciples to pass on their legendary arts to. But for every "Hidden Master," there were 10,000 scam artists looking to make a quick buck at others' expense.

In the early days of Halirosa, this had been an especially serious problem, as experts would use bright-eyed and inexperienced new Adventures to test their experimental, and often dangerous, Cultivation methods. It wasn't until the Senate enacted laws to curb such experimentation and enforce quality control that the general public could have confidence that what they were buying would work and not just cripple them or worse. Nowadays, any Manuals on the open market had to be vetted by the Adventurer's Guild and the Scholar's Guild before selling it was even legal.

Not that things didn't slip through.

So when Johan saw the tattered and worn book covered in dust, simply titled "Barriers for the Braindead" at the local bookstore, Jonah laughed. He laughed again when he saw the absurd price. It was one thing to charge an absurd amount of money for a Fake manual; it was another to one at the point that even a young child could buy it with their pocket change. It screamed, "This is an experiment, buy me."

Jonah had bought it then and there.

Not to practice it himself but to prevent some fool with more dreams than brains from hurting themselves with a shoddy manual. When he brought the book up to the front, along with a few storybooks for the younger kids, the store owner, a wizened old lady, had stared down at the manual with a slight frown and a raised eyebrow but said nothing more as she took his payment for the stack. Many people thought Johan to be dim and that he didn't pay attention, but he still caught the slight smile that crept on the old store owner's face as he walked out the door.

Once he returned to the Orphanage, he'd shown the manual to Sister Audrea. To his surprise, she didn't immediately destroy it. Instead, three weeks later, he'd found the manual sitting on his bed, along with a second journal filled with notes and corrections in the Sister's handwriting. After that, he'd thrown himself into the manual, devouring it and cross-referencing everything he'd read with Sister Audrea's notes. While his skill wasn't enough to call himself a Barrier User, Jonah had made fast progress. He might even get good enough to become an Adventurer once he'd left the Orphanage and helped support them as Bartholomew had.

Of course, that all hinged on there BEING an Orphanage after tonight. Coldfinger had kept an iron-fisted grip on most of the slums in Halirosa for a reason.


A sudden scream from one of the smaller children broke Jonah's concentration. The man roared and, drawing a long dagger, charged Jonah. The young man's head snapped around, and his heart dropped. For there, unseen and forgotten by everyone, stood Thomas. Sweat covered his pale face, and his legs were slightly shaky, but the rampant flames in his eyes did not promise anything kind. 

Jonah barely had time to throw up a small barrier as he deflected the blow, even as a second scraped across it on the return swing. Over the next few seconds, the two exchanged blows, Thomas's long dagger scraping across small barriers with surprising skill and power, while Jonah reached out, trying to grab the much smaller man in his large hands, only for him to dodge out of reach nimbly.

The turning point came after one such failed grab as Thomas latched onto the large young man's wrist and pulled. Jonah stumbled, his posture broken, and Thomas smiled an evil grin.

With a flick of his leg, Thomas clipped the back of Jonah's knee, causing the young man to fall. At the same time, he thrust the dagger upwards, aiming for his solar plexus. Johan, in panic, hastily threw up his strongest barrier, barely in time to intercept. 

Only for a sudden burst of pain to shoot through his mind like a lightning strike.

His eyes wide, Jonah glanced down, unable to make his muddled brain understand what he was looking at. Where a radiant barrier should have blocked a simple steel dagger was a long, icy sword, slipping through a flickering and sparking barrier as if it didn't exist. An icy sword that now protruded several inches out of the young man's broad back.

As Johan's body slumped, suddenly not having the energy to support itself, burning pain intermingling with icy cold, Thomas leaned in and whispered in a quiet voice.

"You're not the only one who's learned new tricks."

Then, with a shove, Thomas pushed the young man back, stepping away as he collapsed backward. Jonah could only stare at the night sky, blood bubbling from his lips as he heard the barrier surrounding the chapel entrance shatter and the children scream in terror.

Thomas was having a bad night.

No, not a bad night, a nightmare.

That's all this could be. When they'd gotten word of the Shipment, Coldfinger had been ecstatic. He said this was their chance to move up. They'd no longer be just some slum gang (granted, one that controlled most of the slums in the largest Adventurer's city in the world). None of them knew how a single Spiritual Beast could change that; the Boss was being pretty tight-lipped about it. Still, it wasn't their place to question. 

The Coldfinger gang had always treated him well. Even after he'd left the streets for the Orphanage at the insistence of his pushy younger brother, he'd kept in touch. He sneered at the thought of the Orphanage that had been his home for nearly a decade. The overly strict Sister, the annoying children, the loud Ann, frustratingly unmovable Jonah, and worst of all, that rat-like little brother of his, pretending to be anything more than the street rats they both were.

Bartholomew liked to pretend it was him that kept them going when their "Uncle" had abandoned them, but Thomas knew the truth. They'd not survive a week if it weren't for his smooth tongue and connections. Not that the brat ever showed any appreciation for it. No, he treated these "Orphans" more like family than his own brother, his own blood!

Not like it mattered anymore, though. He was an adult now and found his own "family." He didn't need them anymore, not the Sister, not the Orphanage, and not Bartholomew. He was going to make it on his own, by his own power, and when he stood on top, he'd come back and look down at them from his mountain.

So when this opportunity came up, Thomas jumped on it instantly. He'd already risen through the ranks quickly, enough to learn a thing or two from Coldfinger himself. This mission would rocket him up, making him one of the gang's true elites. So how did it all go so wrong? It all seemed like a string of unconnected coincidences, the rusty latch, the chipped wheel, the small girl who shouldn't have been there. But as their Uncle had once said, even tiny grains of sand, when piled one on top of another, will form mountains.

And so here they were Thomas, standing over the slowly bleeding out body of a young man he'd known for most of his life. And yet, as his breath came ragged and heavy at that moment, Thomas didn't feel the rush of victory or the satisfaction of seeing someone you hate on the ground before you. Did he feel... regret? No, he couldn't quite place it. It was like an icy block had formed in his chest, filling his veins with a pain he didn't recognize. He took a step back, and as he stared into Jonah's shocked, dimming eyes, Thomas's face scrunched in confusion.

He didn't have long to think about this feeling, however, as in the next instant, he threw up a thick shield of ice, just as a dozen razor-sharp spears of stone hurled through the air towards him, barely stopping inched away from his face. Thomas steeled his resolve and charged towards the Chapel door, quickly blocking more spears as he moved. Through the ice, he could see the rage-filled face of Sister Audrea quickly closing in on him.

There was no way he could beat the "Stone Witch" in a straight fight in a cold hell. Even Coldfinger would have to put in some effort. But he could at least block a few attacks, more so when she couldn't go all out, in fear of hurting the children or drawing the guard's attention.

So within a few steps, He'd reached the Chapel doorway, the children scattering with screams of terror. All but one that was. In front of him, as if she was going to block him from going any further, stood Merry, her eyes glaring up at his with unbridled hatred. Thomas only frowned and grabbed the young girl's hand, encasing it in ice to prevent her from running. He then scooped the struggling girl into his arms, ignoring her punches and her attempts to bite him, before backing out of the Chapel. 

He walked out to find Sister Audrea kneeling beside Jonah, a glowing white light surrounding him, though not seeming to do much. She glared at him, her face a blank mask, though her eyes burned brightly. When she spoke, it wasn't with anger or hatred but a deep sadness that made Thomas's blood run cold. Once more, the icy chill in his chest grew.  

"Did you hate us this much, Thomas?"

Thomas shifted the struggling girl, his face a passive mask, 

"I didn't want any of this, Sister... You all forced my hand. You shouldn't have gone against Coldfinger; you know nothing good can come of that."

Sister Audrea's face flashed into that of demons for a split second at the mention of the criminal underworld boss before returning to one of unmoving stone. Her eyes gently shifted towards the girl in his arms, then back down towards Jonah, still glowing white as her hands rested on him, then back up to Thomas. Her next words were calm, far calmer than he'd ever heard her before, but full of a dark promise that sent bells ringing in the very depths of his soul.

"Tell Coldfinger that I'm coming for her. And If even a single hair on her head is out of place..."

She paused the ground beneath them rumbling like a living thing.

"... He better have an Army waiting."

On top of the Chapel, unnoticed by all, a silver wasp watched silently. Alpha mused to himself as he watched the combat below.

"This magic crap just kept getting weirder and weirder. How the hell does someone turn into a bear like that?! Where does the extra mass come from?! What's up with those barriers?! How does a Biological even do that?! That's totally unfair!"

He'd had to buy one of the most advanced Power core in the federation to power his own barrier system! True, his barriers were several leagues stronger than the boys, but the fact he was even able to generate something like that with his body alone, was staggering. That being said, Alpha couldn't help but feel a bit disappointed. After his fight with the Origins Sect and the confrontation against the Adventures in the Ant's nest, it seemed his expectations regarding all this magical bull had become... skewed.

The motley group below him looked more like a street fight than a battle between people with superpowers. Well, if one discounted the giant bear and the flying rocks. Then again, he guessed it WAS a street fight; ha! Not that he should expect much from street thugs and orphans, Alpha figured. It wasn't quite what he was looking for, but it was close enough. Besides, a lower starting point might work out better. It was easier to shape Clay than Stone, after all.

The fight continued for several moments, Alpha continuing to watch silently as he waited for the perfect time. Then, finally, it came.

Alpha winced slightly as the loudmouth leader of the street thugs ran the larger boy through with what appeared to be a sword of ice (Alpha was pretty sure ice wasn't supposed to do that. He made a note of it for the future).

Sucks for the kid, but worked out perfectly for Alpha's needs. At that moment, unseen, a dozen, finger-sized, silver wasps dropped from the Chapel roof and glided to the downed boy, hidden by the chaos and semi-darkness. Most silently crawled into the boy's clothes, taking position for what was to come next, while the one piloted by Alpha landed near the boy's ear.

Bracing himself, Alpha channeled his best Si'dia and spoke, his voice directed so that only the boy could hear.

"You're going to die, you know. "

"Wha..? *cough*".

Jonah tried to speak but only managed to choke out a bit of blood.

"Don't talk. Your right lung is collapsed, and you've got a pretty sizable gash in your heart. Hell, the only reason you're still alive is the glowy lady."

Jonah's blurry eyes shifted slightly, noticing the form of Sister Audrea hovering over him. Alpha's voice sounded once one.

"It's not going to work. You're losing blood too fast and healing too slow."

Jonah's eyes quivered for a moment, his body tensing up, his mouse opening before a sudden, eerie calm washed over his. His body suddenly relaxed, and he closed his eyes.

"Oh? Given up? I guess that makes sense. Not like you can do much in this state..."

Alpha paused for drama.

"... it's a shame what will happen to the others, but I guess that's life, right?"

Jonah's eyes snapped open, his body tensing once more. Alpha smiled, feeling the metaphorical tug on the hook.

"What? did you think this would all end just because you kicked the bucket? Sorry kid, I've seen thugs like this before. Even if your stabby friend gets away with the girl, the others won't just scatter. Not after what your friends have done to them."

Jonah's head turned as he took in the battlefield. A dozen thugs lay scattered around in various states of consciousness, but even more were still fighting strong. Most were centered around the large, red bear, dozens of bolts sticking out of its fur. A smaller group chased after a young-looking boy as he ran backward, somehow keeping pace as he fired stolen crossbows and threw long black needles. However, it didn't take seeing the small bolt in his left shoulder or his heavy breathing to see Bartholomew was slowing down. Sister Audrea, for her part, was still throwing out pillars and rocks at anyone who drew near, though her focus was on healing Jonah.

"They're going to lose."

Alphas' voice sounded like the ring of a final gong to Jonah's ear, filled with absolute certainty.

Mustering all his strength, Jonah spoke a few quiet words.

" hel...p t...hem..." 

"No can do. I'm not actually here at the moment. Sorry bud, but by the time help comes, it'll be too late."

Jonah's heart sank as an overwhelming sadness filled his soul.

"But you still can."

Alpha's voice cut through the darkness threatening to cloud Jonah's mind like a bolt of lightning.

" you a go...d?"

"0 points, Not even close."

"A... Demon?"

"Depends on who you ask."

Alpha replied calmly, a shrug in his voice.

"I can't help them, but you can. It all depends on what you're willing to do for me. What do you say? Wanna be a Hero?"

Jonah was silent for a long moment, long enough for Alpha to fear he might have taken too long and let the kid bleed out, though the scan showed his vitals were still active, if weak. When Jonah next spoke, it was with an air of finality.

"Help... them."

"Good enough for me! Legal can sort out the paperwork later; I did my part!"

With those confusing words, Jonah felt a sting of pain as the silver wasp near his ear stung into his temple, followed by more stings across his body. An instant, a dozen silver wasps dissolved, flowing into the stings like mist. Jonah screamed in pain far exceeding his stabbed heart and collapsed lung as liquid fire raced through his veins, shimmering silver lines like that of a circuit board shooting out to cover his body.

As the fire spread, a voice sounded in Jonah's head.

"Integration at 45%... Booting up the Domineering Underdog's Chaos Kickstarting System. Welcome, new D.U.C.K User."