Ogre Tyrant: Chapter 83 – Against the unknown – Part One
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Ogre Tyrant: Chapter 83 - Against the unknown - Part One

 

Spending time with Lash and discussing the Inheritances allowed me to reconsider a number of my original assumptions. As per usual, a certain degree of my thinking had been subconsciously restricted by proximity. I had focused too much on those who were nearby or otherwise frequented my thoughts, ignoring those who were further afield.

 

Once I stopped to consider the matter properly I found it difficult to stop. There were potentially dozens of Inheritances that could be discovered and bestowed upon willing subjects. Some, like Wisp, the Valkyrja’ and perhaps the Dryads, could be added to the list immediately. Already possessing the means to see and track mana with intense detail.

 

Reviewing the growing store of Technique manuals, I found a simple diagnosis Technique. Intended as a means for physicians to locate and diagnose irregularities in a Cultivator’s body, the Quivering Palm Diagnosis Technique used a method descriptively similar to sonar to provide the user with internal imagery of the target in real time.

 

Assuming the Technique functioned as advertised, it might prove a viable substitute for those without detailed mana-sight.

 

Returning to the testing grounds with Lash and Eg in tow, I was just in time to witness an Oba elder obtain a complete Inheritance from Sebet.

 

Much to my surprise, the elderly Cultivator had gained a pair of ram-like horns, a whip-like tail, sharp fangs and pitch-black sclera in both eyes. The complete Inheritance had changed him, just as it had done to Zhu Min.

 

Before I had the opportunity to investigate, another elder underwent the same complete transformation in less than a second. The disintegrating Contract floating in front of him was enough evidence to assume Sebet was continuing with her experiments.

 

Once I was certain I had Oba Kei’s attention, I motioned for him to approach.

 

“How may I serve, my Tyrant?” Oba Kei bowed respectfully and then repeated the gesture for Lash and Eg.

 

“There is a Technique that may prove valuable in our Inheritance experiments,” I explained. “The Quivering Palm Diagnosis Technique. Have you heard of it?”

 

Oba Kei nodded and pointed toward one of the gathered Oba elders attending Sebet. “Elder Shinji is our clan’s foremost expert in esoteric Techniques. Shall I send for him?”

 

“Please,” I nodded.

 

Oba Kei looked toward Shinji and beckoned with two crooked fingers.

 

Despite his diverted attention, elder Shinji hurriedly excused himself and rushed to attend Oba Kei. “Grand elder, how may I be of assistance?”

 

“The Tyrant has need of your expertise,” Kei replied in a hushed tone, directing his attention toward me instead.

 

“My Tyrant, it is an honour,” Shinji bowed respectfully. “How may I serve?”

 

“I was told you are an expert in the Quivering Palm Diagnosis Technique,” I explained patiently while motioning for silence. Some members of the Oba clan had the habit of interrupting when they felt they were given undue praise and I didn't want to repeat myself. “Assuming you had a dedicated student, how long do you believe it would take for them to gain a firm grasp of the Technique?”

 

The wrinkles on Shinji’s face grew deeper as he considered the question with deathly sincerity. “Assuming the student is willing, my Tyrant? I believe it would take a week at most. If they are willing and gifted, it would not be unreasonable to expect proficiency within one to two days of serious training. This is assuming the students have access to an Energy Gathering Array or Elixirs, to accelerate their Chi recovery.”

 

“I would like to borrow elder Kei for a few moments, if I may?” Sebet had made her approach shortly after elder Shinji had left.

 

“You’re testing another Contract?” I asked, nodding toward the MP-infused scroll in her left hand.

 

Sebet grinned. “Just so, my Tyrant.” She shifted her attention toward Kei. “With your permission, we would like to test your theory regarding contamination.”

 

“Contamination?” I asked, not immediately following what she meant. Then I noticed Kei’s eyes and I remembered my concerns regarding the Contracts. “With his consent, you may proceed.”

 

“For the good of the clan and the Realm, I am willing to do anything that is asked of me,” Kei stated humbly. “If I may ask? What will this experiment prove?”

 

“The Contracts are a power unique to Sebet’s Species,” I explained, nodding at the Contract. “We want to determine if Inheritances, besides the Fiend, delivered through a Contract are ‘contaminated’ or negated outright.”

 

“Ah,” Kei nodded approvingly.

 

“This is also a test to determine if Inheritances can be improved, or ‘upgraded’,” Sebet continued, sparing a moment to point her clawed fingers at Kei’s unnaturally bright green eyes. “You possess a partial Inheritance already, making you a prime candidate for our next round of tests.”

 

“It will be my honour!” Kei announced with pride. “I need only mark the Contract with my blood, correct?” He asked, raising his right thumb to his mouth and exposing his teeth.

 

“Just so!” Sebet agreed, pressing the Contract forward with anticipation.

 

Although he was keeping his distance, Gric was watching the proceedings with a keen eye as well.

 

“You may want to cover Eg’s eyes and ears,” I whispered to Lash in warning, while motioning for a delay.

 

Once Eg was suitably prepared I motioned for Kei and Sebet to continue.

 

“Just so you understand, this Contract has been tailored to your exact specifications,” Sebet explained while motioning to medical diagrams scattered throughout the contents of the Contract. “It is another part of the experiment. We want to determine if and how much quality is lost when a Contract signatory receives a more generalised package. You may proceed when you are ready,” a predatory grin split her lips and cast her in an altogether deliberately predatory light.

 

Without a shred of fear, Kei bit his thumb and then swiped the bloody digit on the bottom of the Contract.

 

With a flash of MP, the blood disappeared and the sigils of Contract swarmed to life. A torrent of MP swept out of the Contract and into Kei’s body.

 

In just under a minute, Kei’s aged body underwent a rigorous reconstruction. While it did not return him to the prime of his youth, the grand elder looked at least twenty to thirty years younger. Of course, he now had a trio of horns protruding from his forehead, claws on the end of all his toes and fingers, and serpentine eyes, but he didn’t appear to mind.

 

“Zero contamination!” Sebet declared excitedly. “And the inferior Inheritance was overwritten!” She pumped her fists excitedly and did a short sprint on the spot, failing or otherwise unwilling to contain her excitement.

 

“Oh! Oh by the heavens! I can’t remember the last time I could do this!” With his hands firmly planted on the back of his hips, the grand elder was leaning backwards at the waist.

 

“It wasn’t overly painful or distressing?” I asked, curious to see how the Contract may differ from the manual approach.

 

Coming to his senses, Kei coughed into his sleeve in embarrassment and then bowed respectfully. “Apologies, my Tyrant! There is a small degree of pain and discomfort, but it is nothing compared to decades of training and Cultivation. I am perhaps not the person best suited to answer such questions.”

 

He had a point. Presumably, all of the elders were veterans of who knew how many conflicts. The titles were not awarded for age. They were earned through deeds and milestones of Cultivation. Individual clans held different standards on who could become an elder, but tier six, roughly Rank one hundred and twenty of the Eternal Tao Racial Ability, was the minimum universally accepted Chi requirement. Without extreme talent to accelerate the internalising of raw energy into Chi, the majority of elders would naturally be quite old before they met the minimum standards.

 

The tiers were also heavily related to the progressions of certain Techniques, but the Chi requirement was a secondary identifier.

 

“You have been made aware of the test you will need to pass before returning to your regular duties?” I asked.

 

Kei nodded soberly. “I was informed as much, and now that I have undergone the change, I appreciate why it is needed. Drawing upon ambient energy has always taken effort. To have the universe turn upon its head so suddenly...I can appreciate the danger I might pose to younger practitioners.”

 

“I’m glad you understand.” I smiled approvingly and felt a considerable degree of relief. It felt good when more experienced experts agreed with precautionary measures and didn’t have immediate recommendations for improvement. “Zhu Min is eager to learn more about martial arts and she has experience with controlling the energy drawing effect. So I hope you will both take the opportunity to learn from one another.”

 

“My Tyrant is wise. I will do as you say,” Kei agreed happily.

 

Gric and Sebet’s tests continued for another couple of hours while Lash and I watched from a distance and discussed the results.

 

“What about Eg?” I asked, sparing a glance at the small Half-Ogre. “You wanted an Inheritance for her, but I don’t think she is old enough to decide for herself. Hell, we have barely uncovered a handful of them as it is. A better-suited inheritance may be identified a week from now.”

 

“This is true,” Lash agreed reservedly. “Being different, only watching, is also bad,” she countered while gently stroking Eg’s scalp.

 

“True,” I agreed with a sigh. “I just don’t want to force a decision on her and find out later that I ruined her life...”

 

Lash snorted and shook her head, grinning incredulously. “Worrier, this is what the Humans say. You fight tomorrow and tomorrow's tomorrow in the mind,” she tapped the side of her head. “Prepare, plan, build...” Lash smiled and squeezed my hand supportively. “Make our home, protect us...” A playful light began dancing in her eyes. “All of this!” Lash exclaimed with a grin. “Yet not perfect makes you afraid?” She snickered playfully. “Perfect is good. Not perfect? Is also good,” Lash insisted. “Choosing now, gives time to grow, to join others.”

 

She had a point. Several really.

 

“So, what would you choose?” I asked, shifting topics slightly. I was curious to learn where her preferences lay and why. “Assuming the other Inheritances are an option,” I added, including a dozen more hypothetical Inheritances that accounted for Ochram, Hana, Wisp, the Valkyrja, and a whole host of other monsters.

 

Lash didn’t even hesitate for a moment. “Earth and stone,” she declared with absolute confidence. Given her origins, it made sense. While she tolerated her time above ground for the sake of our relationship and our children’s happiness, Lash was never truly at ease while above ground during the daylight hours.

 

I nodded to show my approval and then looked pointedly at Eg. “What about her?” I asked, hoping Lash would have some sort of insight that would make the choice easier.

 

“Flowers...” Eg mumbled quietly, anxiously wringing her fingers while avoiding eye contact.

 

Lash smiled affectionately and gave Eg a one-armed hug. “Her answer,” she announced proudly.

 

“So, an Inheritance from Hana or Momoko then.” I was glad that I had asked. Something related to the Wood Affinity wouldn’t have been my first guess and probably wouldn’t have been amongst my final selection if the choice had been left up to me.

 

With their desired Inheritances currently unavailable, I returned Lash and Eg to the Oba clan training grounds.

 

While Lash and Gric continued their experiments, I set about actively compiling a list of potential sources of additional Inheritances. While doing so, I discovered several of the Viking Cultivators, including their former Monarch, possessed an Inheritance already. Or rather, they had recently obtained an Inheritance.

 

Einheri’s Spirit

 

The Inheritance functioned differently to the others I had investigated thus far. Instead of amplifying the connection to a particular Affinity, manipulating energy, or otherwise accelerating development, the Einheri’s Spirit Inheritance covered an entirely different niche. Specifically, the effects of compatible Techniques would be amplified. The caveat being that the amplification was directly linked to how close the bearer of the Inheritance was to their death.

 

Despite the morbid nature of the Inheritance, I refused to dismiss it out of hand. Intuition granted by my authority told me that the Titan’s Body reinforcement Technique was compatible with the Inheritance. In fact, almost every Technique related to developing and strengthening the body was compatible. While I didn’t have any weapon-based Techniques, my intuition told me that they were compatible as well.

 

While the easy power promised by the Fiend and Daemon Inheritances was tempting, the Einheri Inheritance offered something approximating insurance. With the memories of how badly I was beaten while fighting the beetlemen still fresh in my mind, the prospect of growing stronger when otherwise outmatched was not something I could pass up.

 

More than that, I had a mounting sense of certainty that the other Inheritances were mutually exclusive by their very nature. If I chose any one of them, I would be incapable of taking on other Inheritances in the future. With the Einheri’s Spirit, I felt those same restrictions but also a vague impression that there were other Inheritances that shared at least partial compatibility.

 

However, the more I reflected upon the source of the Inheritance, the more misgivings I felt at the prospect of taking on compatible Inheritances.

 

With only one way to be certain regarding the nature of the potentially compatible Inheritances, I Summoned a projection of Wisp and commanded him and his ward, Marco, to return to the Realm.

 

Otherwise occupied with thinning the ranks of the undead leaving the Mournbrent Labyrinth and containing the remainder within the city, Wisp’s primary duty was serving as Marco’s keeper. A parole officer of sorts.

 

Traumatised by years of debauchery and butchery committed while Enslaved to the Vampyrs, Tobi’s older brother had not been in a fit state to remain within Sanctuary.

 

Or rather, I had not trusted him to remain.

 

Reflecting upon my choices and motivations, I felt disappointed in myself. Sending Marco away had been an emotionally charged decision based too much on my personal feelings of revulsion and anger. It was a punishment in all but name. Penance for sins Marco bore little if any degree of responsibility.

 

It was a wrong I needed to make right.

 

If I could set aside an isolated territory for a Demon Lord, I could make at least the same effort for a tortured soul to find a measure of peace.

 

The animated mass of vines, Briarheart, remained in Mournbrent. With Wisp’s prolonged absence, his cabal of Warlocks would need additional support to maintain their combat efficiency.

 

Upon sensing Wisp and Marco’s return, I sent Marco to the territory I had set aside for him and teleported Wisp to my side.

 

After explaining what Sebet and Gric were doing I wasn’t surprised when Wisp promptly excused himself to investigate their experiments for himself.

 

Soon enough, Wisp was experimenting on horned rabbits, and later, Tamed Vrabbits. Confirming that, he too, could provide an Inheritance.

 

The Sanctified Soul.

 

The Inheritance provided immunity to the entropic qualities of the Death Affinity and allowed the Death Affinity to suppress hostile undead. Although quite niche in its application, the first effect was a powerful form of self-defence. Having witnessed the effects of the Death Affinity first-hand, the prospect of becoming immune to it was incredibly tempting.

 

Summoning projections of Sigrun, Kara and Skuld, I repeated the explanation I had provided to Wisp under the expectation that they might be interested in joining the experiments as well. However, they showed little interest in the experiments. Instead, they appeared far more interested in me.

 

“You are chosen,” the Valkyrja triplets croaked in unison, spectral wings burning with silver with light.

 

Sensing their Divinity entering my spirit, I realised my earlier concerns no longer mattered. The choice was no longer mine to make.

 

“Death bringer, avatar of carnage, army of one. For these deeds, we name thee, Einheri!” In a sudden flash, the trio of projections expended their collective mana and disappeared.

 

Unsettled by the qualifications the Vakyrja had attributed to my name, I did my best to push them from my mind and focus instead on my new Inheritance. The Einheri’s Spirit.

 

While I had been heavily leaning toward choosing the Einheri’s Spirit Inheritance, a part of me still resented that the choice had been taken from me. To regain a sense of control, I approached Wisp and told him to try and bestow the Sanctified Soul.

 

“It may carry certain risks...” Wisp warned quietly, his voice like dry crackling leaves. “Power, no matter how slight, always has its price...”

 

Taking a moment to leverage my authority against the hypothetical, it only increased my confidence. “Do it,” I commanded.

 

The hood of Wisp’s robes bowed in acquiescence and a pale emaciated hand extended from his right sleeve. “May your soul shun corruption and deny the presence of the corrupted...” Wisp traced his fingers through the air to form a symbol I wasn’t familiar with but felt comparable to the Catholic Signum Crucis.

 

A burning feeling swept through my senses and brought me to my knees. Unable to push back against the mounting pain, I grit my teeth and bore with it. Determined to outlast the source of the pain, I forced myself to meditate and use the pain to deepen my understanding of myself.

 

As the pain guttered and died I opened my eyes and found a considerable amount of time had passed. What had been the early afternoon was now the early morning. Rather than feeling disoriented, I found I was able to account for the time that had passed by recalling snippets of whispered comments made by the Oba clan’s elders.

 

All of the elders, save for Kei, had been returned to their city a few hours before I ended my meditation. But Kei continued in conversation throughout. Unable to identify the owner of the voice through the pain, I was surprised to find Marco standing in the early morning sun alongside grand elder Kei.

 

Deathly pale, Marco wore simple trousers and a tunic beneath a battered breastplate. While there was sadness in his eyes, I found no traces of the suicidal hysteria that had all but defined him during our last meeting. In its place was a calm resolve that I could only hope came from a newfound purpose.

 

It took me a while to realise that Marco remained unharmed despite standing in direct sunlight. A feat I had been told was impossible for anyone who changed into a Vampyr. Investigating his Status, I found my answer.

 

Just the same as Wisp, Marco had been Purified. Still an undead and physically unaltered, Divinity had driven the ‘corruption’ from what constituted his soul. Removing the predatory drives that had stripped bare his humanity and left him acting on primal impulses. Allowing reason to prevail so long as he had the will to act.

 

I wasn’t exactly sure how that corruption was responsible for spontaneously combusting in direct sunlight. But I supposed it didn’t particularly matter either. So long as Marco was in full control of his mental faculties, I wouldn’t treat him much differently than anyone else.

 

“You look better,” I commented, interrupting their conversation.

 

Defiance flashed in Marco’s eyes. Unlike the majority of my subjects, Marco was technically still my Slave.

 

With a dismissive wave of my hand, I cancelled Marco’s Enslavement and banished the collar from around his neck.

 

“I acted in anger. I shouldn’t have done that to you, I’m sorry,” I apologise and meant every word.

 

Stripping people of their free will and forcing them to act as I wanted them to was always the easier option. The shortcut that guaranteed compliance and allowed no room for evil. However, it left no allowance for good either. Forced to action under Enslavement, good men and women would be stripped of their humanity and perform heinous acts, just to stop the pain.

 

“You...” Marco’s clawed fingers twitched and his lips parted to reveal predatory canines. Then, he stopped, closed his eyes and counted to ten. Opening his eyes again, all signs of his earlier anger had vanished. “You could have killed me,” Marco commented neutrally. “Should have killed me...” He added after a moment's hesitation. “I...I am glad you did not...” Marco briefly balled his hands into fists but unclenched them again. “I was afraid, terrified, of the thought of my family seeing what I have become...the terror and disgust on their faces...I could not bear the thought of it...”

 

Oba Kei supportively patted Marco’s right shoulder and gave him an understated yet reassuring smile.

 

Taking comfort in the gesture, Marco smiled in return, even if it was somewhat pained in comparison. “I have had time to think, to reflect on what I have done...I can’t make things right. I can’t return the lives I took...But I can try to make the world better! So long as I am alive, I can fight to protect people who can’t protect themselves! And maybe...maybe one day I can look in my parent's eyes and not see a monster staring back at me...”

 

I kept the grim reality of his situation to myself. Being reminded that he was, in fact, literally a monster, would be cruel and accomplish nothing productive.

 

“Have you considered writing a letter?” I asked, recalling how distraught his parents had been during their brief stay within Sanctuary. They had already believed him dead and that their younger son, Tobi, would likely join him any day. Tobi’s miraculous recovery, thanks to the Angels, had spared them mourning a second child, but Marco’s survival, even in his monstrous state, was potentially life-changing news.

 

Marco flinched. “I...” He looked down at his boots in shame. “I want to...” He admitted quietly. “But I can’t bring myself to do it...What if they demand to see me? What if...” Marco lost his voice and shook his head. “They saw me...In the city...In Mournbrent...Saw what I did...”

 

“They saw what the Vampyrs made you do,” I corrected, emphasising the difference. “I remember what you told me, you know. That you tried to keep them safe, taking others in their place.”

 

Marco hung his head in shame.

 

“What they made you do was abominable, and I think, if you gave your parents a chance, they would surprise you,” I insisted.

 

Back on Earth, some parents had lost their children to cults and addiction. Despite all their children put them through, and the harm they brought to others, their parents were willing to look past it all and give their child another chance. I didn’t know Marco and Tobi’s parents well enough to make that judgement, but I wanted to believe they would.

 

“Maybe...” Marco conceded but didn’t sound like he believed it.

 

“Tobi has made close to a full recovery, and he knows you're alive.” It was a white lie, a half-truth at worst. Tobi had never truly believed his brother had died. Only that he had gone missing. “If you don’t feel ready to contact your parents, you could at least write to your brother.” Tobi wasn’t aware of what Marco had done unless their parents had told him, which I doubted was the case. So there was less pressure.

 

“I...I’ll think about it...” Marco agreed, this time with a semblance of commitment.

 

I actually hadn’t spoken with Tobi since before the Liche’s ambush on Sanctuary. Which seemed like an eternity ago despite being so vividly burned into my memory.

 

“You’re free to stay where you will in the meantime,” I reassured him. “Your life is your own.”

 

Marco looked up at me with a confused look on his face. “Just like that?” He asked hesitantly.

 

“You have sworn to obey my laws,” I replied evenly. “Twenty-four-hour observation or house arrest is likely to do more harm than good at this point. But if you don’t want to face the world just yet, I could make arrangements on your behalf.

 

“I...Thank you...” Marco replied softly. “I didn’t think anyone would ever truly trust me again...Even with the Oaths...Thank you.”

 

I left Marco and Oba Kei to continue their previous conversation in private. Leaving food and water behind, in case I forgot to pass along instructions to Zhu Min regarding Oba Kei’s required training.

 

Speaking with Marco had reminded me of Fesk, and by association, Nadine, and what was almost certainly the imminent hatching of their first child. It was difficult to be certain, given each Species carried their egg, or eggs, for different lengths of time. However, the hatching itself was entirely dependent on there being sufficient mana in the vicinity. Which Sanctuary had in abundance.

 

It wasn’t far off to assume that since the egg had not yet hatched, then Nadine was due to...give birth? Lay her egg...Very soon, and for her child to hatch shortly after.

 

Returning to Sanctuary, the darkness cast by the walls of towering trees surrounding The Grove served as a reminder of just how early it was in the morning. However, the small gathering of pale-skinned and white-haired men and women gathered beneath the tree that served as Fesk and Nadine’s home, led me to believe that my earlier assumption was likely far more accurate than I had expected.

 

A long drawn-out groan of pain echoed from beyond the curtain leading to Fesk and Nadine’s bedroom.

 

“How long has this been going on?”I demanded, singling out one of the assembled Thralls at random.

 

“Not long...” The male Thrall replied hesitantly, earning a shove and irritated huff from the female at his side and judgmental stares from several others.

 

“Just over an hour,” the female curtly corrected, directing the majority but not the entirety of her attitude toward the male.

 

“Wraithe is present?” I asked, already directing my senses toward the bedroom.

 

“And several more Surgeons,” the female Thrall confirmed more or less as my authority did the same. “It shouldn’t take this long,” the Thrall pressed, “Something has gone wrong!”

 

I didn’t want to distract Wraithe during what might be an emergency Caesarean, so I opted for a more direct source.

“Ooooh? Huh? Oh! Fuck me! That feels so much better!” Nadine’s projection swore with visible relief.

 

“Do you know what’s happening up there?” I asked, injecting a thread of authority into my voice to try and focus Nadine’s projection toward the issue at hand.

 

“I...I’m laying an egg?” Nadine replied, looking at me as if I was daft. Only for her expression to quickly change to profound concern. “It’s hard to remember...Wraithe gave me something...for the pain...Oh! Oh no...I...I think it's stuck...And Wraithe and the other Surgeons were talking about cutting me open?” She wrapped her arms around herself and shivered. “I don’t want them to do that...”

 

“DON’T YOU FUCKING TOUCH ME!” Nadine howled from the confines of her bedroom.

 

“I uh...I think I have a knife?” Nadine’s projection admitted sheepishly but with no small measure of concern. “Or maybe a sword?... It’s difficult to remember...”

 

“Setting aside the relatively low risks of a Caesarean-” I raised my hand to forestall any potential argument. “There is a much better way of going about this.”

 

A little annoyed at being dismissed, Nadine’s projection exaggeratedly raised an eyebrow while firmly crossing her arms across her chest.

 

“We call in an expert,” I replied to Nadine’s unspoken question.

 

“Wraithe’s supposed to be an expert,” Nadine countered dryly.

 

“A different kind of expert,” I replied, gathering my MP for another Summon. “Quite frankly I’m a little disappointed this is necessary...”

 

Appearing in her true form, Sebet made a show of beating her large leathery wings and lashing her tail.

 

“Her egg is stuck,” I stated bluntly. “Please see to unsticking it.”

 

“Of course!” Sebet replied enthusiastically.

 

“As noninvasively as possible,” I amended.

 

“I would not dream of doing otherwise!” Sebet agreed heartily, grinning all the while.

 

“And everything is to be returned to the way it was,” I added, unable to shake the suspicion that Sebet was up to something.

 

“Standard procedure!” Sebet concurred.

 

“And no weird sex stuff!” Nadine’s projection interjected heatedly, having overcome her shock and now thoroughly concerned for a whole host of new possibilities.

 

It lasted only a fraction of a second, but I was certain I saw Sebet flinch.

 

After receiving several more explicit conditions, Sebet alighted to Nadine and Fesk’s bedroom with markedly less enthusiasm than she had demonstrated only a minute before.

 

“This kind of feels like I’m cheating...” Nadine commented guiltily. “On myself, the other me, I mean...”

 

“You have nothing to feel guilty about,” the female Thrall interjected supportively, earning a chorus of similar sentiments from the other female Thralls.

 

I could see where Nadine was coming from but decided it wasn’t best to discuss the matter in front of the current audience.

 

“The screaming stopped...” I observed, trying to make conversation. “So that’s a good sign.”

 

Earning a host of judgmental stares, I pretended not to notice and sat myself neck-deep in the lake. It was then that I noticed Ushu was doing laps in the depths.

 

After giving it some thought, I realised that it made a sort of sense. Fesk was Ushu’s Bonded partner and they shared a form of telepathic link. Ushu doing laps was somewhat equivalent to a family friend pacing in the delivery waiting room in the maternity ward.

 

This made me wonder, given Clarice was in the bedroom, why Sebet had been excluded. After giving the question just a few seconds of thought, and referencing my most recent interaction with Sebet, the question more or less answered itself.

 

After a couple of minutes, a wave of muted cheers filtered down from the tree. I was going to take that as my cue to cancel Nadine’s projection, but noticed she was slowly making her way up the stairs toward her bedroom. Rather than overthink her motivations, I exercised my authority to relocate her to the landing just outside the doorway, saving her from having to make the trip. Earning a wave of gratitude once she got her bearings.

 

Toying with the idea of changing my form, I was surprised to find that my tattoo was gone. More than just a patch of magically discoloured skin. The tattoo was a binding Contract between myself and Sebet. Its abrupt disappearance was more than a little concerning.

 

Before I could Summon another projection of Sebet so I could investigate, my authority alerted me to an intruder’s sudden appearance through the primary entry portal.

 

<Prey!> Kwan announced only moments later, transmitting an image of an obese man in brightly coloured clothes and a damningly extreme amount of jewellery carrying a thick golden sceptre.

 

Rather than argue with Kwan, I relocated the intruder to a tiny subdivided and thoroughly isolated territory. If this was some form of trap, the small portion of territory would be added to the watery vanguard Kwan and a host of wild aquatic Beasts currently occupied.

 

Using my authority to draw Sebet and Gric to my location, I donned my armour and prepared to face the potential threat.

 

Only marginally more impressive on land, the obese garishly dressed noble was a quivering mass of dark flesh and soiled silk. “W-Wait! He squealed, raising the golden sceptre as if it was a shield. “I come bearing a message on behalf of the High Lords of the Dominion!” peeking past his pudgy eyelids, the messenger appeared genuinely surprised to still be alive. “A-As a messenger, I am not to be harmed!” He insisted weakly. “In accordance with the rules of war-”

 

“The message!” Gric snapped irritably.

 

<His mind is rife with sabotage.> Gric explained. <Attempting to tamper with or touch anything would trigger some form of trap.>

 

<Most likely a defensive measure.> Sebet interjected. <We, I, encountered such precautions while working within the Dominion’s borders.>

 

The messenger’s six chins jiggled in fear as he whined pitiably. “Th-The H-High L-Lords want peace! Th-They offer th-this Artefact as c-compensation f-for p-past grievances!” He thrust the sceptre forward and made as if to let go.

 

A part of my subconscious had me reaching for the sceptre before my conscious mind could act. However, Gric was faster.

 

Exercising his limited authority, Gric relocated the sceptre outside of my reach.

 

“That isn’t-” My conscious mind caught up to what had happened and my train of thought was momentarily derailed by a sudden rush of anger. “That isn’t an Artefact!” I snarled.

 

The messenger squealed in terror, pissing and defecating himself as he tripped and stumbled over his distended boots in an attempt to escape.

 

The sceptre reappeared in the messenger’s hands and before he could react, he disappeared.

 

“A Beacon? Or some form of conditional Teleport Spell?” Sebet asked curiously.

 

“It is proving a favoured tactic!” Gric snarled. “We will need Anchors to deny their freedom of movement!”

 

“Empowered Anchors would be better,” Sebet interjected. “I suspect the obelisks contain a similar Spell. It would be wise to level the playing field.”

 

Through force of will, I calmed myself down and reevaluated what had happened. Abandoning the tiny territory, I amalgamated it into Kwan’s domain.

 

Regrouping on our testing grounds, I crafted a stone stake and used my blood to cast an Empowered Anchor Spell. Purchasing the services of a Semenovian volunteer, we revoked their citizenship and had them attempt to use a wand containing the Teleport Spell.

 

After several dozen attempts at varying distances, and failing to successfully teleport, the volunteer was compensated and had their citizenship restored.

 

An Empowered Anchor covered a tremendous distance, but it also consumed a substantial amount of mana to block teleportation attempts. For lack of a better idea, I settled on an upscaled casket loosely based on the Ark of the Covenant from the Indiana Jones movie.

 

The interior would be filled just shy of bursting with mana stones and the whole thing would be reinforced by the Empowered Shape Stone Spell. Four Ogres should be able to carry it about as necessary without much difficulty.

 

Following a similar design principle, I made several more caskets and keyed them to matching staves that would activate defensive and offensive Spells.

 

Issuing a formal mustering order, I had Gric and Sebet compile an official list of our prospective forces.

 

When approached, Baldr, High King of the Broken Isles, and former Monarch, volunteered himself and a hundred of the best warriors his people had to offer. The presence of the three Valkyrja sisters had triggered a string of honour duels and the Vikings were only too eager to prove themselves in open battle.

 

Despite an intense desire to participate, the Oba clan was still too unstable, leaving only two elders to represent them in our forces.

 

Despite their numbers, the tigermen were in the grips of a leadership crisis. All of their leaders had been killed by the Horangi as a means of cementing their dominance and crippling any attempts at rebellion. With seniority generally dictating strength amongst Cultivators, it was best just to leave them be.

 

True to our implicit understanding, Kang volunteered himself, and only himself, for military service. The massive monkey’s children were the next most powerful among his people, so I didn’t press the matter further. As a father, I could understand his reluctance to involve his children in the wars of his conquerors.

 

The Semenovians and Asrusians both wanted to field armies in the tens of thousands. However, after receiving detailed first-hand accounts from Faine, Jayne and Randle regarding the devastating capabilities of the beetlemen, they settled for sending only their most elite forces. Even those men and women would likely be relegated to a supporting role to avoid catastrophic casualties.

 

Zhu Min had wanted to join as well. However, the amplification of her Abilities after recently receiving a completed form of her Inheritance made her a potential liability. Until she reestablished control, she would need to remain sequestered for both her and everyone else's safety.

 

The Ogres would serve as the core of our forces. Although they were lacking in Evolutionary potential and were relatively low level, they had the greatest benefit from my synergies.

 

My Bodyguards and champions would serve as my personal vanguard. The beetlemen had made it clear that they were after me specifically, so it made sense to keep my most competent and loyal warriors close at hand.

 

Since my return from Yi Gim’s Realm, I had left Mud to wander Sanctuary while I attended to other matters. He had spent most of that time eating, sleeping, and training with Ophelia. Which had kept him far busier than I otherwise would have expected. Whether he had gained any meaningful combat experience from the training, was yet to be seen.

 

I had originally intended to make a force composed of individuals that possessed both Systems. However, with the beetlemen now acting through their human proxies, it was made clear that waiting any longer would come at the expense of surrendering the initiative in its entirety.

 

To assist in the defence of the Realm in my absence, Ushu, Dhizi and Cooper relocated to the oceanic vanguard. Anyone attempting to launch a sneak attack in my absence would face far greater resistance than they otherwise expected. However, that also meant that I needed to take Kwan with me since he and Ushu did not get along.

 

As much as I wanted Ushu to come with us, he had refused to leave.

 

Sebet had bluntly vetoed Clarice’s participation outright. Which came as a surprise, although it really shouldn’t have at this point. With Dhizi already committed to the home guard’s vanguard, Clarice didn’t have much to offer in terms of fighting capabilities. The same was true for Nadine and Fesk. To say nothing of the fact that they were probably exhausted and would soon have a newborn child to look after.

 

Further experiments were put on hold, pending our return. However, Sebet was permitted to create an open Contract that would allow human Cultivators to take on the Fiend Inheritance. The Oba clan were restricting its use to those who had damaged Foundations, but Zhu Wen was allowing his people, including those recently annexed from the former Demon of the Mist’s realm, to make their own decisions.

 

Interestingly, speculation regarding potential Inheritances that may be made available in the future resulted in relatively low rates of conversion amongst the general population. Those without an immediate need seemed willing to wait and see how things would pan out.

 

As our departure grew imminent and the Empowered Beacons were undergoing a final round of tests to guarantee our eventual return, I made a point of spending time with my family. Both as a reminder of what I was fighting to protect and who I wanted to return to when it was over.

 

However, a persistent voice in the corner of my mind insisted it was because I might never see them again.

 

The sentiments weren’t mutually exclusive, but I didn’t want to tempt fate by entertaining the possibility of failure.

 

Refusing to dismiss my paranoia outright, I continued directing Sebet and Gric to prepare against increasingly unlikely scenarios. The beetlemen were alien and unknowable, making it nearly impossible to guess what they might attempt.

 

For all I knew, I was heading into a trap. Goaded and baited to a place of their choosing, a place they held dominion...

 

But I didn’t see a viable alternative.

 

A war of attrition favoured the side most willing to sacrifice their people, and I knew I didn’t have the heart for it. The thought of losing people to the fighting ahead was already difficult to bear.

 

If we didn’t take the fight to them, they would continue bringing the fight to us. Placing us in a war on two fronts.

 

The Supremacy Challenges were an ongoing source of concern and they wouldn’t be going away. The sense of security I had entertained after establishing my alliance with Yi Gim had been dashed apart after witnessing the betrayal he had suffered from within and without.

 

While the Oaths I extracted from my people eliminated the possibility of rebellion, it did not prevent a dedicated and motivated enemy from striking otherwise without warning.

 

Yi Gim had said that the top rankers of the Cultivators Supremacy Challenges possessed the means to accomplish brute force entry to Realms of their choosing. It was only a matter of time before my Realm became a target...

 

There was always the danger of other Awakened to consider as well. Each and every one of them were potential Monarchs, future rivals set to war for the scraps of a world teetering on the brink of apocalypse.

 

It was something I had tried not to think about but was brought to the forefront of my mind after confronting, defeating and containing the Demon Lord.

 

Assuming Yi Gim’s retelling was accurate, delving too deeply into any of the hundreds of Labyrinths would trigger a planet-wide invasion. An invasion with the sole purpose of executing an extermination of all sentient life, humans and Variants alike.

 

While I refused to accept it. A part of me, despite all evidence to the contrary, was afraid that when that day came, those I counted amongst my most trustworthy and powerful agents and allies would be forcibly turned against us...And that same part of me hoped their Oaths would fail.

 

Better to Banish those I had raised as children, than to watch them die, knowing their blood would be on my hands...

 

 

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