Chapter 35 – Mastering Skills Of Blood And Flame
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“Draw and strike, Eric. Just like I taught you.”

His mentor's gruff, never-quite-satisfied voice washed through Alex's memory as he faced the fur-covered pell that had managed to deflect even a spear hurled by a boosted class skill, so tough was the inch thick rawhide beneath the fur, and the greater lizard scales just underneath.

Inhale, exhale, strike.

Inhale, exhale… strike!

From utter stillness to an explosion of killing intent, Eric unsheathed and struck with his saber in a sweeping draw-cut that would have knocked any weapon aside and disemboweled anyone unlucky enough to be caressed by that blade.

Before being absolutely vivisected by the twin pair of high-low flashing cuts slipping under imaginary guards from shoulder to neck and back, before finishing with a sweeping slash to the throat as Eric leaped back less than a second later, miming flicking blood off his blade before cleaning and resheathing it, and repeating the maneuver again.

And again.

Repeating it until the echoes of his nightmares, a cacophony of surprised cries and looks of desperate fury and mortal terror upon the faces of all the men he had killed the day before, at last began to fade.

Ten men he had killed.

Ten men who could have been drinking and laughing together, secure in the rightness of their cause, would never laugh or drink again. Their secret hopes and dreams for the future, the smiles they would have shared with loved ones at some future time...

Extinguished forevermore.

Because they had been stupid enough to make a power grab not against a local group of thugs… but against a clan of blood mages and a burned, broken Conscript who had been forged in fire, and would do whatever it took to grow strong, powerful, and never ever leave an enemy at his back who might come after him, just as he intended to come after the orcs.

Just thinking about those squealing pig-faced monstrosities made Eric's blood boil as the last dregs of guilt he had felt about the ruthless slaughter of the day before was finally burned away.

Because the men he had killed had not been a loose band of misfits looking to assert their place in this city, no gruff but good-natured thugs offering to duel their strongest for who got to be king of the mountain.

Hell no.

These men, whether they had been fools, sycophants, or truly bloodthirsty, had been led by a man who had said, point blank, to kill them all.

It hadn’t been a power grab.

It had been an attempted slaughter, as evidenced by nothing so much as the pair of crossbowmen who had attempted to sneak in the back. Not to challenge, but to assassinate.

But the fools had never scouted out the terrain, clearly, because there was no back door in.

Just Eric, springing around the corner, happy to trade a quickly regenerated hole in his wrist for cold death as the crossbowmen fell to quarrels they would have so loved to claim for themselves.

There had indeed been a slaughter that day, but it had not gone the way the spear-throwing classer had intended.

And that one terrible truth vindicated Eric like no other. Because as foul and ruthless as it had been for that man to attempt to wipe out Morlekai’s band in one go, that was nothing compared to the depravity of a man willing to work for the orcs.

Not only work for them, but to become favored enough to claim one of their classes.

The man had been a Javelineer. And the pilums he had been throwing? The favored throwing weapon of the orcs.

And as competent as Eric thought of himself, he hadn't hesitated to run, weave, and dodge when he had been in peril, doing everything he could to prevent that bastard from drawing a bead on him. As an archer, as a former hunter, as a guy who had tried to smack numerous flies and mosquitoes, he knew there was nothing so frustrating as pray that ducked and weaved and refused to stay still, or foolishly maintain a straight-line trajectory. So he had made sure to pivot and dodge for all he was worth.

Yet even so, that spear had still nicked his side, completely shredding the armor he had been wearing.

If Eric hadn’t made taking out the sidekick huffing under a bag of spears who had stood by his leader’s side a priority, had the Javelineer not been goaded to follow Eric, his seeming indifference to the bolt that had torn through his ankle belied by his unwillingness to lug around his own heavy bag of throwing spears, the day would have had a far darker ending.

At least as far as Eric was concerned.

As it was, the man had been both injured and overconfident, to think that one pilum was all it would take to bring Eric down.

And he had almost been right.

But Eric, unlike that turncoat bastard, had dozens of crossbows at his beck and call, weapons he could summon forth in just under two seconds.

A thought that made him shake and sigh, having donned one of Drake's old armor sets that fit his own larger form with just a bit of extra padding, since his previous set had been shredded by the spear.

Because all he had to do was pat the hilt of his blood-bonded blade with a certain amount of affection, and look at the leatherworker's enchanted pelt, now covered in gaping slashes, slashes which in a few cases had even cut through at least a little bit of the shockingly tough rawhide underneath, to appreciate just how costly a single second could be.

If he had any regret, it was the almost two seconds he had to spend cycling weapons. Because even if returning to storage space was instantaneous, drawing a fresh one was not.

But still, he thought with a fond smile, admiring his blade with the flash and sparkle of crimson flame now running along the grain of its steel, he’d be the first to acknowledge that he had a hell of a lot to be thankful for with his latest toy and the skills it had unlocked.

Just in the couple of hours he had been practicing, he could sense his understanding and mastery of his blade heightening, though he had been afraid to interrupt his flow, pop his zen, by checking to be sure. Now, though…

He pulled up his character sheet and all but crowed with delight.

Saber, just in the two hours he had been mastering his fast-draw skill, was getting ever closer to Rank 12, as evidenced by his visualization of a slowly filling blue bar.

Because Morlekai had been right.

There was no better way to pursue mastery than with a weapon one had forged a piece of one's soul to, making it just an extension of himself.

And now, when he truly felt in the zone, it was for the next step. To see just how far he could push gifts of Essence and System skill enhancements both.

So far, he had been relying on raw skill and a deadly serrated edge to mark the pel before him.

Now it was time to see just how effective his special attacks were with his soul-bound blade.

And much to a trembling Eric’s delight, they were more effective than he could possibly have hoped.

Doom Slice!

The words roared through Eric’s mind, as the insights of countless master swordsmen shivered through his soul.

Just for a heartbeat.

Just long enough for a sweeping draw-cut to kiss the reinforced fur-covered lizard scale armor that Smith had made proof against crossbow bolts and furiously powerful spear throws alike.

Before cutting right through.

Slicing cleanly through fur, laminating scales, and the absurdly reinforced padding underneath.

Slicing so deep that it kissed even the concrete-filled steel pole at the heart of the thick and absurdly well-padded training pel.

The only moment Eric felt any resistance at all, as his blade slid free and his ears rang with the roars of his own pounding heart, the exultation of his soul.

Before roaring out and infusing his body and soul bound blade with the essence of Wrath itself.

Burst of Strength!

He struck the pell with a furious cleaving slash that this time he most definitely felt shuddering through his blade as he twisted his hips, slicing as he cut, sensing the sudden strain in the spring steel of his blade as his power blow actually managed to send the pell spinning around and wobbling back, with a second gaping slash that was nowhere near as deep as the first, but with so much force delivered that any opponent would have been sent crashing to the ground, armor dented if it was steel plate, or torn completely through if it was anything else, he was sure.

Eric let out an exultant shout, his fierce grin making it clear he didn’t give a fuck who heard him before turning his focus back to what truly mattered. Doing the best he could to imprint how it felt to channel both abilities back to back. One skill was all about communing with the essence of the blade, and perhaps, the System collective, the other relying on his own abilities alone, even if infused by the Essence of Wrath.

But what truly sent shivers of wonder racing down his spine was sensing as well as seeing the minute stress fractures his mad impulse had gifted his blade… knowing that there was a limit to what even soul-linked artifacts could handle.

Before pouring his will into the blade. And slowly, so slowly it was hardly visible, he could sense his blade repairing itself, internal stress fractures and edge damage fading ever so slowly. Reverting back to the moment of pristine integrity at the very instant he had first forged his crimson link to the blade he had been told to oil, sharpen, and polish to perfection right before their little meeting.

This alone made Eric eager to embrace certain possibilities Morlekai had hinted at. But before he dared the cost, he had to be sure.

He swallowed his suddenly dry throat as he pulled out a poorly made rawhide vest, reminding himself that he really had to do something about the three massive lizards taking up most of his storage before shaking the thought away and focusing instead on the sword in his hand and the rawhide he placed on the now grass-covered soil.

Ignoring the shiver from the gentle mist that now seemed to fall twice a day like clockwork, and he would have felt nothing but awe for the greenmages taking advantage of the glowing moss high above that somehow acted as weak sunlight, at least as far as plants were concerned, to truly transform this entire underground cavern. He would have, were he not trembling with effort to bring to the fore the very first gift that had saved his life at least once in his desperate race for shelter when first being shat out of a spiteful pod.

A skill that, unlike his exceptionally useful Infravision skill, Burst of Strength, and weapon perks, had been put entirely on the back burner since the very first days of his adventuring career, because of the necessity for bare skin on skin contact.

Or at least it had, until now.

You have successfully channeled Heat Surge through Soulbound Artifact.

Rawhide armor has been set ablaze!

Eric stumbled back, wanting to shout with triumph at his skill actually working, all his practice focusing his Burst of Strength skill, channeling what seemed his very essence into his swing, had aided him as well at accessing the very first power he had ever used.

Power that had just been channeled through 3 feet of blood-bonded steel, hot enough to set crudely tanned rawhide instantly ablaze.

Power that sent him crashing to his knees, feeling incredibly dizzy and nauseous, as if the Eric of a year ago had just sprinted a quarter mile uphill in August and was about ready to puke his guts out.

“What the hell?” A hoarse whisper to a question his interface immediately answered.

Congratulations! You have successfully channeled the Essence of Fire through Blood-Bound Artifact.

Heat Surge is now Rank 4!

Blood Mastery is now Rank 2!

You have fully tapped out Soul Reserves.

You are suffering the effects of Temporary Soul Depletion!

Eric swallowed his nausea with a snarl, summoning a flask of water he damn well wanted to replace with something stronger soon, washing his mouth out with luke-warm water and spitting, finding it helped somewhat, but only somewhat.

He still wanted to hurl. But at least now he could take deep shuddering breaths to steady himself, steady himself and work on what his own interface mocked as his trash tier cultivation technique. Because why the hell not?

It might have been stupid, using multiple essence-related skills after training for two solid hours and making full use of his weapon perks. But better he know now what he was capable of. From there he would do all he could to get better, stronger, and increase his ability to link Essence Skills and Weapon Feats together for what he hoped would be a devastating series of strikes for desperate battles he would do all he could to win, in the days to come.

Just as importantly, however, was learning how to overcome the awful exhaustion he felt, a fatigue of the soul as much as it was of the body, so he’d be ready to fight against future peril, and be recharged for more training in the here and now.

With that thought in mind, he decided it was time to work on that Trash Tier technique that even the System acknowledged him having. Because shitty or no, it was all he had. And if there was any chance it could help him feel better right now, help him relieve that roiling nausea shuddering through him? It would be epic tier, at least in his book, for damn sure.

With a smile that was more the grimace of a man choking down vomit, he closed his eyes and imagined burning away all sickness, all fatigue, and the memories of almost a dozen faces twisted by shock, confusion, or horror as their lives came to an end.

Breathing in and out as the screams of dying men were slowly drowned out by the roar of a bonfire.

A roar he then tuned out, focusing only on the essence of that blaze…

Until all that was left was a tiny flickering flame.

A pristine flame that burnt so brightly, somehow beyond any easily quantifiable definition of heat. As if it were the essence of heat, for all that it was just a sputtering little candle in the infinite darkness of his soul.

He didn’t know how long he stayed in that meditative state. Long past the time his nausea passed and he sensed his Soul Reserves recovering. Long enough to feel refreshed and more at peace with what had happened just the day before.

And long enough to sense as well the difference between his candle-flame’s worth of Fire Essence and the whirling drop of pulsating essence that was somehow a mixture of Flame and Blood, an intermediate Essence of Wrath. Where his flame essence flickered, as if a candle nearly gutted out, yet refusing to let itself be extinguished, his Wrath essence pulsed with vitality and strength. Both still the same size and, he sensed, the lowest tier, but one was definitely more vibrant, more vital than the other.

He shook his head in disappointment, but finally understood why his Burst of Strength was so much more efficient than his Heat Surge. His Wrath Essence was more stable, more complete, somehow more… whole than his Essence of Flame. Which was strange, since he was damn certain he had been more in tune to the agony of fire than anything else when he had embraced absolute madness saving his sister. His Essence of Wrath just an adjunct to the fires burning without and within.

Unless…

He thought back once more to the pulsating vegetative monstrosity responsible for turning so many rejected humans to horrors… before saving his sister’s life, and perhaps his own.

But not before doing all it could to steal Eric’s Essences. And perhaps, at least in part, it already had.

“Fucking bastard vegetative piece of shit!” He hissed, clenching his fists, ignoring the sting in his eyes. “You broke your own covenant. I can taste it! You tried to entice, you spat me out broken and helpless, hoping I’d perish. And in the end, you fucker, you still tried to tear free what you could! What, you hoped my quick death would make sure no fucking pod complaint could ever be filed? Because even whatever corrupt confederation comprises your fucking ‘System’ has to at least give the appearance of egalitarianism and fair play? Is that it, you semi-sentient piece of vegetative shit?"

Eric found himself roaring the last, glaring up from his crouch, only to gaze upon the faintly bemused countenance of a strikingly beautiful girl who couldn’t have been older than sixteen, gazing down at him with the most hypnotic amber eyes he had ever seen behind the blue streamers of smoke from the cigarette between her smirking ruby red lips.

Eric swallowed, struck by the discordance of the world-weary eyes, sad smile, and lush exquisite features. A part of him felt fury blaze in his heart once more, wondering who or what had hurt this girl. Because sure as hell, something had.

Then he felt dizziness of a different sort, finally understanding who this girl was as she took a long drag and teased him with her grin while blowing smoke in his face.

"I'd ask who you're talking to, or why you've been sitting in a lotus position for who the fuck knows how long, which is kind of stupid, after what happened yesterday, but, shit. My real question is, why the fuck did you set up a fire right beside your training pell?”

Eric couldn’t help but shake his head in wonder. “Alice! Is that really you?”

She smirked, and Eric could suddenly sense the strain behind her playful smile. “Yeah, it’s me, same girl as always.” She swallowed, glaring down at her cigarette, before taking another deep, anxious drag. “And don’t say anything about anything, okay?”

Eric slowly nodded, recalling all too well the dark vision of supernatural otherness she had become, raising her hands with a look of exultation as the blood of a dozen fallen souls had caressed her. Enveloped her. Only to be consumed to the last drop. And of the desiccated corpses left behind? Eric hadn’t seen a trace of them when he had come out to train after waking up from his exhausted stupor just a handful of hours later, desperate to push thoughts of what had happened, how close they had all come to death, how cold and ruthless a motherfucker he had become, just to survive.

The last thing he was going to do was stir up crimson memories he himself was trying his best to put aside.

“Sure, Alice. No problem. As for the fire...” He turned to gazed down at the merrily burning piece of rawhide he had set ablaze… When had he set it ablaze? He gave a puzzled shake of his head. “Hell, I’m not sure when I set it. It couldn’t have been more than a few seconds ago, could it? Otherwise, it would have gone out. I think.”

Alice snorted. “You were spacing out there or… meditating? For a good hour, Eric.”

Eric blinked. “Then how the hell...” he frowned, staring at the blazing piece of rawhide. “That’s funny...”

“You think?”

“I… how long have I been out here?” He shook his head, ignoring the snark in her voice. Then he frowned at the ground, noting the charred grass several inches on all sides of the rawhide, infravision making it clear that the rich loam underneath it was white-hot as well. Meaning that it had sat there for quite some time, heating up the ground. “Thank god the grass is always damp around here now.”

“I know, like a fuckin’ Irish mist. Almost makes me feel like I’m back home.”

Eric turned around to gaze at the girl possessing a beauty so striking he had no doubt his mother would kill to get her in her next production… no doubt as the villainess, because of course Elonia must always rise ascendant, as their mother put it, but Alice would get a great showing, and enough cash to buy a mansion of her own.

He shook his head free of miscellaneous thoughts before turning back at the fire. “So, you’re Irish, then?”

“Irish Romanian, yeah. Came here by boat, when I was younger.”

Eric nodded. “I’m a mutt myself. Mother just called herself a lady of the world. As for my father?" He shrugged. "Your guess is as good as mine."

He chuckled bitterly, slumping back down upon the damp grass, suddenly so tired he could barely move, wiping the hot sting in his eyes that had absolutely no business being there. “Sorry, I… I guess I’m still a bit shaken from… you know.”

Damn it, here he was, hit with the shakes he should have gotten yesterday, or not at all. After absolutely kicking ass with his super upgraded saber, setting rawhide armor burning way too long, and pushing training to exhaustion.

Anything to keep the dark thoughts at bay.

Because those assholes had made it clear that they weren’t out to prove themselves or gain rep or get in the organization… they were there to assassinate Eric and all his friends. So why the fuck was he having a breakdown now, long after shit had gone down?

He choked back a sob as he felt soft, delicate fingers squeezing his shoulder.

Fingers that were far stronger than they had been even two days ago, he was damn certain. Not that that was any business of his.

“It’s okay,” she soothed, her voice husky and soothing, the sarcastic older sister vibe of minutes before replaced by an almost motherly concern. “It’s always hardest, the first time any of us have to...you know.”

“Take out monsters of the two-legged variety?”

She chuckled softly. “You know what? That fits as well as anything else. And even though Morlekai was quite pleased with your display, and feels no need to question you about anything, I kind of thought, well, maybe you had something you wanted to get off your chest?”

Eric swallowed, jerking a nod, and told her about the events leading to a dozen corpses outside their front door. From the time he had first caught the gaze of the giant with an orc throwing spear in his hand, radiating deadly energy with a hard gleam in his eyes, to the spearmen and crossbowmen backing him up. And Eric had known even then that they weren’t there for honorable duel or challenge.

They were out for blood.

Alice nodded thoughtfully, lighting a fresh cigarette off Eric’s still blazing fire. “Sounds to me like you did your best to protect your friends, Eric.”

She gave his now helmetless head an affectionate rub. "And I can't tell you what it means to know I have a little brother I can count on in a pinch."

Her gaze turned serious. "Your kills were righteous, little bro. When you darted around the house and nearly got sniped by the men they sent to flank us and shoot us in the back? Any lingering doubts you might have had should have been quenched right then at there. Because the moment we sensed them spilling your blood, their death warrants had been signed.”

Eric blinked. “You could sense that?”

Alice winked. “Fire seems to be your gift, and this cigarette never tasted so sweet, lit up with the Essence of Flame.” Scarlet tipped fingers gently stroked his cheek as she took another deep drag.

"Blood is my gift. Mine and my brother's. So yes. We know when one of ours is injured." She flashed a bemused smirk. "Even if we're still calling you our Associate, you're far more than just that in our hearts." Her gaze turned coy. "You do know that, don't you?"

Eric swallowed. “I… thank you, Alice. That means a lot to me, actually.”

Absolutely glowing with youth and health, despite the bad habit she couldn’t quite kick, her smile both warmed and soothed his heart. “Good. Now, how about you put out your little flame, and we go have some dinner?”

Eric grinned, looking forward to a piping hot plate full of spaghetti and meatballs, and he didn’t give a damn how much of a stereotypical meal it was. They had hundreds of cans of sauce, thousands of boxes of spaghetti, a quality meat grinder, and all the monster meat Eric had in storage. Besides. It was nice to have something that felt the way a family meal should. Even if his new family of friends was an eccentric crew indeed.

As far as he was concerned, there was only one problem. “Um… shit. I can’t put it out?”

Alice frowned, but it seemed that covering it in dirt just turned the dirt to hot powdery ash, and the water turned to boiling mud, with Eric’s rawhide still burning merrily way.

“What the hell did you do, Eric?"

And Eric could only shrug, wondering much the same thing.

 

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