V2Ch1 – Smart Choices
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I basked in the eerie blue glow of the System screens as my mind raced to process all the information arrayed before me. I had learned already learned much about it from Sarah and Shiro’s descriptions, but nothing could have prepared me for the real thing.

I suppressed a flash of annoyance, (my Intelligence, a paltry 1?) remembering how Sarah had mentioned the System only counted the stats it bestowed instead of estimating your capability. But that annoyance was soon smothered by the pure giddiness at finally experiencing the Status screen for myself.

A year ago, I’d have laughed at the idea of growing stronger with the push of a button. Years of hard work and dedication had gotten me to where I was, and the idea of someone reaching the same heights in a fraction of the time would have seemed ludicrous. Yet I had seen the way Sarah had gone from a bumbling kid in poorly fitting armor to a truly fearsome knight in the space of a handful of months.

My thoughts jumped to one of the new Heroes — Cameron, the mage. I had asked him to demonstrate his skill, and despite his unrefined way of casting, he was already nearing the level of an Adept. The Academy would have a fit if only they knew of his advancement.

And now, I had been granted the same advantage — maybe even more so, as I had the perk that allowed me to improve at spellcasting at twice the normal rate. I would have to test it out, but I had already made tremendous progress since I added Origin to my repertoire. The way it forced me to blend all Aspects together was the analog of an intense workout, and having to free myself from the artifact’s effects pushed me to improve like never before.

I stared long at the Status screen, before finally deciding to put all the points I had been given into Intelligence. The physical stats I could do without, and I wagered that for the moment, my Will was more than sufficient. Meanwhile, if the extra Intelligence could keep me from making any more incredibly bad choices…

I winced inwardly. I could see now that my response to the attack on Ravenrock was poorly thought out — no, not poorly thought out. Not thought out, at all. I had let my emotions get the better of me and jumped at the first solution I could think of. Which was hardly a solution at all — I was hardly a strategist, as the past month had so handily proved. I merely… wielded a big stick (Not even the nice one, I thought as I gripped the staff tightly), waving it around like a hammer, only ever winning because people with a better grasp of tactics had wisely decided to stay out of my way.

And when my numerical advantage was gone… Well, there was no point dwelling on that. I had learned my lessons.

I raised my right hand to touch the Status screen, trying to touch the little ‘+’ sign next to Intelligence’s little ‘1’ — but my fingers went right through the screen to no effect. I tilted my head, considering how to assign the points. When I had asked them, the two Heroes hadn’t dwelled on how they assigned their points, talking merely about how they chose to distribute them. It followed, then, that assigning the points should have been immediately obvious.

Since Will was one of the stats, could the process have been as simple as an effort of will? Blinking, I tried to wish my Intelligence stat to go higher, and it responded by doing so instantly, while the number of unassigned points went down by 1. Concentrating, I willed the remaining points to go to Intelligence as well, and soon after I took a satisfied look at my new Status.

 

Name

Julian Crane

Level

24

Class

Archmage

Species

Lich (Human)

Status

Health

100/100

Stamina

Willpower

100/100

Attributes

Strength

1

Dexterity

1

Intelligence

25

Constitution

1

Endurance

1

Will

1

Unassigned

1

Skills

Soul Magic

20

Mind Magic

20

Force Magic

20

Matter Magic

20

Fate Magic

20

Dimension Magic

20

Multi-disciplinarity

1

Perks

Arcane Savant

Paragon of Humanity

Despite the clear numerical increase, I didn’t feel any smarter — though I wasn’t sure how I could tell, anyway. At the very least, I didn’t feel any suicidal urge to pick another fight with the Rhinian Empire, but that was a low bar to clear.

When I had tested out Sarah’s improvements in Dexterity, each point had had a measurable effect on her speed, following a clear, quantifiable pattern. But how did one quantify Intelligence? Would it make it easier for me to untangle complex magical systems? Would it make me think quicker?

I wondered, perhaps, if I had been wrong to jump onto my first instinct and increase my Intelligence without consulting with the Heroes first.

I wondered, after, if perhaps the nagging feeling like I had made a bad choice wasn’t actually the effect of the elevated Intelligence, trying to steer me away from making bad choices.

I shrugged and waved the thought away — if Intelligence could rein in my impulsiveness, then that was already a win in my book.

I wondered, then, whether Intelligence had a direct effect on spellcasting. The stats did come in pairs, after all, and Will was clearly related to magic. I didn’t have a concrete baseline for how powerful my spells were, but I did have a rough ballpark for comparison — and if there was any effect, going from no System to 25 Intelligence should be a discernible leap.

I drew a thread of Force, preparing to cast a basic Fireball, and was surprised to see just how readily the Aspect responded to me. Was that from Intelligence? Or was that from the Anchor? I would have to take a peek into my Soul after I was done with my experiment.

Fireballs were the bread and butter of any apprentice Mage. Unless they were as bad with Force as I had been with Dimension, every apprentice had to practice this spell until it became second nature. I was no exception, and the fact that I was so intimate with the spell combined with its inherent visibility made it perfect for testing out changes.

Before I could construct the spell, a tingle at the back of my mind dampened my excitement and forced me to think things through. I was about to cast a spell designed to explode and destroy — one that I assumed, or at least hoped, would be stronger than I was used to.

Perhaps the Observatory is not the best place for this experiment, I noted dryly — and I knew, at that point, that I had been right to put my points in Intelligence.


“What happened to your eyebrows?” Sarah asked as she leaned against the tower’s wall, a bemused expression on her face. I had just stepped outside, intent on checking the town out, but it seemed like the young knight was relaxing outside, alone.

Frowning, I brought my fingers up to my faced and touched my eyebrows — or rather, the place where my constructed body should have had eyebrows. But where they expected hair, my fingers were met with smooth skin. “A reminder,” I said, trying to condense as much gravity in my voice as I could, “that even when you think you’ve taken all the proper precautions, life might surprise you anyway. In my case, I woefully underestimated how strong my fireball would be.”

Sarah’s eyebrows shot up — unlike mine, who would remain unable to do so until I patched them back up — and her lips contorted into a barely contained grin. “Good lesson. I’ll take it to heart.”

I nodded with mock seriousness. “See that you do. You never know what you’ve lost until it’s gone.”

“So it blew up in your face?”

I shook my head. “Not quite — it just turned out to be much bigger than I had expected. You see, I unlocked the System just before that—“

“You what?” she exclaimed, suddenly bursting with excitement. “Why didn’t you start with that? So the anchor thing worked? What’s it like? What Class did you get?”

Taken aback by her outburst, I raised my hands defensively. “One question at a time, please. Yes, the anchor thing worked. And it says my Class is ‘Archmage.’”

“Huh,” she said, tilting her head, “I expected something flashier for you. Like ‘Dark Archnecromancer or something.”

“Yes, well luckily, I was spared that kind of designation,” I said with a wry smile. “I don’t think I’d have been able to live that kind of name down.”

“Right, well, anyway, what’s the System look like to you?” Sarah asked.

“A lot like you described, though I didn’t start at level 1. Did you expect it to manifest differently?”

“Well, a little bit. You see, all the System stuff looks really similar to some technology we have back home. I figured it might look different to you, since you’re from, well, here.”

“Have you considered the similarity might go the other way around?” I asked, intrigued by this line of thinking.

“What do you mean?”

“You assumed the System looks the way it does because it’s based on the technology from your homeworld. What if, instead, that technology was based around the System?”

“That couldn’t be— or maybe…” she paused, brows furrowing thoughtfully. “Maybe a Hero who returned, or… maybe the System guided our technological development? That would be really freaky.”

“The latter wouldn’t be surprising, I think. From my interactions so far, I feel like there are few things the System can’t do.”

“Gotta watch what I say around Big Brother, I guess,” Sarah said with a hint of worry. “Anyway, you said you already had some levels from the start? How many? 2? 3?”

“24,” I said, which caused her eyebrows to shoot up. “I believe I received a large amount of experience from unlocking the System myself. If I interpreted the notifications right, System access is meant to be bestowed, not claimed.”

“Yeah, that makes sense. Still, 24 levels in one go?” She whistled.

“Who got how many levels in one go?” Alexis asked as she popped out of the treeline not too far away, holding a dead rabbit by the ears. Her bow was slung around her shoulder. She closed the distance with a deceptively quick saunter.

“Boss shot up straight to level 24 when he unlocked the System,” Sarah said, earning me a wide-eyed stare from the new arrival.

“Well, that’s totally fair,” Alexis said, some of her tension leaving her face. She still remained guarded around me, though I couldn’t fault her for that. “I guess I shouldn’t be the one to complain, though. Having access to the System has been a complete cheat ever since I got here.”

“Isn’t that the truth,” Sarah said with a snort. “What’s with the rabbit, anyway?”

“Oh, this.” Alexis raised her trophy to eye level. “I’m just so used to having to hunt for my food, I just kinda fell back in my usual routine. The whole undead thing… that’s gonna take some getting used to,” she said, her voice quiet.

On a whim, I summoned some thin threads of Mind and Soul, anchoring a fraction of the rabbit’s soul to its body and replacing its mind with a wight construct. With a thought, I instructed it to behave like a rabbit.

Alexis was surprised to see the small animal squirming in her grasp, completely unfazed by the hole in its neck. A moment later, her lips tightened in a sad smile. “Some things you can’t ever fix.”

I shrugged. “Maybe not, but you can still try to make them better.”

She brought the rabbit to her chest, stroking the fur atop its head. “That’s a good point. Well, thank you for the present. I think I’ll call him Grey,” she said and made to leave with the rabbit in her arms.

“Call him Rabbit!” Sarah shouted before Alexis could head into the tower. Alexis turned around, confusion on her face, and Sarah continued. “Like my bear, you know? He’s called Winnie.”

Alexis broke into a grin. “Rabbit it is, then. Hey, Boss?” she asked, her voice uncertain, quivering a bit on the last word.

“What?” I asked hesitantly, more than a little confused with where the conversation had ended up.

“If you find any tigers, can you turn one for me?”

Sarah broke into a fit of laughter, and Alexis joined in. “Good one,” Sarah said, full of cheer.

Alexis nodded and finally went into the tower.

I turned to Sarah, who was still having trouble controlling her mirth. “So,” I said and waited for her to calm down. Their banter had left me with many questions, but one of them took precedence.

“What exactly is a tiger?

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