Chapter 56 – Pushing My Skills To The Limit
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“Eric, hero of the hour! How are you feeling, my man?” This from a smiling Drake wrapping him up in a bear hug when he came downstairs, still yawning after his exhausted doze, a part of him curious if there was anything else of note that the mayor and Morlekai had spoken of.

“Pretty good,” Eric said, the shakes and bouts of anxiety that had hit him so hard the night before, even with the sweet girl that had been such a to comfort him, now no more real than a fading dream.

He smiled, deciding that all the extra rest had done him good after all. “Just thought I’d get an early start on home improvement and all that.”

Drake’s eyes positively twinkled as he all but dragged Eric to the dining room where everyone was digging into the favorite meal of the house. Because boxed spaghetti kept for years, and spicy canned tomato sauce was absolutely fantastic for enhancing mystery meat, and lots of it. "First time I've heard you care about anything but how fast you can swing your blades, and how sharp you can keep the edges. So, is my girl Sue rubbing off on you?”

Eric had the grace to wince. “Yeah, about that…”

Drake shook his head. “Not a word, my man. Susie’s her own woman, and last night I was still um...”

"Comatose and on the verge of death, is the word he's looking for," said a grinning Alice, looking a thousand percent better than she had the day before, and absolutely devouring her pasta while flashing Eric a positively wicked grin. "And that's one girl who gets night terrors even worse than I do! So an empty bed just isn’t an option for her. And don’t think we all couldn’t hear what you and Susie Sue were up to, boy scout. Even over the music. Because if you were a virgin before...”

Louie laughed. “Quit teasing him, Alice.” He held up a glass of red wine, as did the others, Eric surprised and a bit humbled to find them all raised his way. “To the hero of the hour. Thanks for saving our asses, kid. Because sure as shit, we were all cutting it damn close yesterday.”

All of them drank to that, Morlekai handing Eric a glass as well.

"To narrow escapes and well-earned victories. Let's live long and prosper, guys," a choked-up Eric said before drinking deep, tasting notes of cranberries and sugar plumbs that served as a nice counterpoint to what was otherwise a rather tart red. But shared with friends celebrating the sweet joy of surviving another day? It was as delightful as any champagne glass thrust into his hands at so many premiers and parties, a lifetime ago.

“So, Eric, plans for the day?” asked Morlekai.

Eric smiled and nodded. "Fixing up my room, working on my gear, seeing if I can track down a masterwork spear. Then it’s all about training my ass off. Because you're right, Louie. We did cut it damn close yesterday. And I can't help but think that if I had been just a little bit faster, a little more clever… if I had had more tools ready when I needed them...”

But Louie was gazing at him with a look of bemused disbelief. “Let me get this right. After pulling us all out of the fire and risking your life for the sake of this town multiple times in less than 24 hours, you think you’re now obligated to train even harder?” He shook his head. “Kid, you took out a 30-foot titan yesterday. With fucking flaming arrows and a kill shot right to the eye. You got a kill-shot on a bloody titan!” Louie banged the table in his enthusiasm. “That is some epic shit, man! Milton was composing a song about it last night. You and Morlekai both, heroes of the whole fucking town, for sure.”

“And don’t think for a moment we’re letting you fix up your own room,” Drake cautioned with a warm, heartfelt smile. “Not after you jumped off a burning building, carrying us to shelter. And how the fuck you managed that bit of madness… god only knows." He flashed a teasing grin. "Besides, I'll bet you're shit at carpentry. So you just leave that to me and Louie.”

Eric smirked at that. “Like I was going to let you lug-heads become monster food and have to handle all the girls myself. I’d be too exhausted to even train! And that’s so not happening, because they I'd have to forsake my one true love."

He gazed down fondly at his sheathed saber. "No one understands the bond we share, 1821. They only think they do."

Louie and Alice exchanged a look as Eric dug into his spaghetti, surprised to find that he was as hungry as he was, or that Alice always managed to make it taste so damned good.

“He’s kidding, right Morlekai? Please tell me he’s kidding.”

Morlekai smirked at his sister. “I’ve never judged your taste in boyfriends, so why should I judge his?”

Louie furrowed his brow. “Hey, I’m not that bad...”

Eric huffed in mock offense. “And anyone can tell that this 1821 is clearly a lady,” he said, admiring the way the light caught the edge of a blade that was beyond razor-sharp, and utterly free of serrations or white-hot flame. “I mean, just look at her gentle curves. Graceful enough to leave long, lingering kisses upon anyone eager to dance with her, and she’s still straight enough in her spine to give excellent… point.”

Drake smirked. "I'm just surprised it's not covered in fire. Wasn't your saber covered in—“

Eric quickly raised a finger to his lips. “Shh… we don’t talk about Mary Sue in front of 1821,” he said, patting the hilt of his resheathed and completely inert blade. "They have a history. You understand." Then he winked. "They're not like you, Sue, and Mia. My girls get jealous and hate to share. But there's just so much of me, one blade can't cut it. You know what I mean?"

He couldn’t help grinning at the looks this earned him. “And on that note, I think I’ll take my leave. Training time!” he said, smirking at his nonplussed friends, more relieved than he cared to admit that things weren’t weird between him and Drake. If anything, the gratitude he had seen shining in everyone’s eyes had felt almost surreal. Like he really was a hero in this brave new world.

But all he had to do was think about what had happened to the poor undead titan who had been a young man filled with dreams and excitement, loving this brave new world, laughing with his friends not so long ago. All of them daring to believe they were destined for success and greatness, only to fall to the twisted spells of a lich and the schemes of a goblin… before the last of them exploded in fire, as they boy turned horror perished before an adventurer so like what he himself had once been. His final tormented thoughts somehow finding their way into Eric's horrified mind.

The twisted irony of it all made Eric sick, and he was more grateful than he cared to admit that his friends were giving him a free pass as he trained, even as he heard his friends hammering away at the house. Even as Mayor Stibbs, John Smith, and Hobbs all came by for an intense conversation about the needs of the community, Drake bitching about them suddenly becoming instructors for the raw recruits, and Eric could feel eyes positively burning his back when they talked about the bows poor Velvet and Jeffrey had both left behind.

“Leave the kid alone, he's done enough," said Morlekai at one point before they all drifted off, and Eric was more grateful than he cared to admit as he did his best to tune out all distractions while unsheathing and striking with his saber in a single beat, feeling like he was on the cusp of an epiphany.

The terror of the recently halted invasion, the confusion of the night before. All of it was gone.

All that remained was the sword on his hips and the lessons his sensei back in Japan had worked so hard to drill into his head now coming to crystal clear focus like never before, as he unsheathed his sword and sliced into the training pell before him in the blink of an eye, thoughts and intentions becoming one.

Congratulations! You have had a breakthrough!

You have unlocked the Hidden Skill – Iado! You’re now an Apprentice in the art of the fast-draw, and so much more! For this discipline transcends simply drawing your blade quickly. It incorporates all aspects of striking your foes from all angles with absolute precision and control in a flurry so devastating that there can be no counter!

Iado (Fast-Draw) has been successfully quantized at Rank 5!

Note! This is a LESSER version of the Sword Saint's Death-Draw skill! This lesser variation requires no Nodes to anchor!

Note! All hidden arts are only quantized upon achieving Apprentice tier (Rank 5) or better!

And Eric couldn't help but glow with a sense of fierce satisfaction when it all truly clicked. Countless hours spent mastering the art of unsheathing his blade and striking with a flurry of devastating slashes from multiple angles… the tingles of insight he had gotten while practicing his saber technique against undead horrors just the day before… all of it combining in a sudden frisson of understanding.

Such that now, when he swung his saber, he did it with an exquisite sense of how to maximize the power in the cut, his entire body now flowing and striking as one.

Killing intent. Absolute commitment. Striking with absolute precision. Thoughts and action unified as one. This was what it meant to walk the path of the swordsman. Eric sensed the truth of that like a shiver of insight racing through his soul.

And he didn’t even need to glance at his character sheet to sense the +1 he had earned in both Quickness and Finesse. His inner gamer might be jumping for joy upon discovering the existence of hidden skills. Skills that wouldn’t even reveal themselves until he had walked their path for at least a while. But how many times had his interface said ‘Iado skillcheck made!’ in the back of his mind? A skill that granted attribute bonuses even at Rank 5, what his Interfaced now acknowledged as being the galactic equivalent of Apprentice tier, no matter how many months or years it took most people to reach that degree of skill, here on Earth.

As much as the revelation made him smile, most of what he felt was the simple joy of just losing himself in the mastery of a new skill, glorying in his increasing ability to draw and strike with a blade that now truly felt like an extension of himself, reveling in the feel of even his non-serrated saber biting into at least the fur-covered layers of his pel, and biting deep, as he delivered lightning fast sheering blows not just with shoulder and wrist but, for the split second when power was needed, the force of his entire body behind the blow.

He didn’t even mind the audience, John Smith having stuck around, sharing a beer with Morlekai, after the others had left.

"You're getting awfully good at the fast-draw, kid."

“From an experienced HEMA guy? I’m taking that as a major compliment,” Eric quipped, still panting a bit with the last series of forms he had striven so hard to master, Vitality notwithstanding. This, of course, earned a dry chuckle, Smith darn well able to see the pride Eric felt in his own accomplishment, knowing just as Eric did that his boosted stats, and a ridiculously boosted learning curve as well, thanks to his Interface, meant that Eric was already at Olympian levels. If not beyond.

“Can I give you a word of advice, Eric?” Smith said after another thoughtful sip of beer.

Eric's smile froze in place, then slowly turned to face the man. "Absolutely, John. I'm all ears," he said.

“Keep your cards a bit closer to your vest.”

Eric swallowed, stealing a quick, furtive glance, but seeing no one else around. “Is there something I should know?”

Smith frowned thoughtfully, then shrugged. “I can tell you’re talented, kid, as can anyone with two eyes. And 90% of the time, you’re discrete as hell. I also note you’re never showy when anyone comes by. And if maybe I saw something… interesting a time or two, it was all normal sparring and pel-work by the time I came within walking distance of your compound.” He flashed a bemused smile. “It seems that someone, however, thought that maybe you were capable of… more.”

Eric swallowed, ignoring the chill racing down his spine. “More?”

Smith slowly nodded. “But hey, it was all smoke and fire and everyone running for their lives against the undead, so if a couple people saw you switch from bardiche to saber in the blink of an eye… or pull out a crossbow out from nowhere… if, say, a certain mayor was peering a bit too intently at you today, asking all sorts of questions about your whole little crew?”

“Yes?”

John smiled. “Well, he saw for himself how fast you draw a saber, even if just in passing. I don’t mind telling you that he was… impressed. And he thought nothing more of it than that.”

Eric clenched his jaw, but slowly nodded. “Any other rumors going around that I should know about?”

This earned a shrug from John. "Maybe just a couple. One is that Morlekai is some sort of mage, with a red raven familiar. The other is that his sister used to be a high-class escort, once upon a time. Not that that's anyone business but her own. Other than that?" The man shrugged. Before slowly shaking his head. "If a couple over-excited kids were saying anything else over ales the other night, we had a long talk about the importance of discretion being the cornerstone of any friendship.”

Eric solemnly dipped his head. “Thank you, John.”

The man smirked, taking another sip of his beer. “It’s probably nothing. But I know you guys have had to deal with at least one other group of thugs gunning for your spot on the totem pole. And seeing as your crew actually gives a damn about the rest of us, I’d far rather work for honorable rogues than murderous thugs. As far as the mayor goes?” John shrugged. “He might be fine. Knowing the strengths of his men is, arguably, his job. But he’s always been a politician, never a soldier, and the way I see it, your secrets are yours to share, and share only with those who’ve earned your trust.”

Eric swallowed. “I… thank you, John. I definitely appreciate the heads up…” The man frowned. “I mean… the council for discretion.” He forced a laugh. “I promise not to let a bit of notoriety get to my head, or act the playboy, or anything like that.”

The smith chuckled. “I’m sure you’ll be fine, kid. And like I said, it’s probably nothing. But there’s a lot to be said for discretion. And that holds true for all of us.”

They parted then, but not before Eric gave him a final request, sharing some of his private chilled ale stock he pretended to pull out of a back pocket with a smile, earning a bemused chuckle as John prepared to head back to his smithy.

“Sure, kid. After the farcical performance of men trying to spear to death undead walkers everyone should know need headshots to take out, their abdomens basically serving as spear catchers so they can trap your tool before crawling up your own damn weapon shaft to tear your face off... you wouldn’t believe how many requests I got to reforge everyone’s spears into blades that can chop as well as thrust. And you wouldn’t believe how much of a stretch it is to rework that steel into anything that could be called a bardiche.”

Eric grinned, realizing by the twinkle in the man’s eye that somehow Smith had managed to do just that. “I’m guessing we’re in the process of making a handful of wonderfully light and nimble bardiches that are just perfect for beginners without a Pod survivor’s knack for growing ridiculously strong, ridiculously fast?”

John laughed. “Don’t you know it! But don't worry, Eric. I'm someone who appreciates good craftsmanship as much as any former historian, and there were a couple of beauties I don’t have the heart to reforge.” He gave a thoughtful nod. “Beauties I’ll be happy to bring over later today. And no, don’t you even think about paying me anything. Not when this whole damn town owes you more than Stibbs will ever be willing to pay.” He winked. “And not when the only weapon I’ll ever be selling is a bardiche I myself forged. Why the hell do you think I have apprentices and partners? They sell all the other toys people are desperate to trade. But gifts? Hell. Oldest custom in the galaxy. I’ll gift whatever I damn well please.”

Eric couldn’t help chuckling at that. “Thanks, John. I really do appreciate it.”

The man snorted, gazing at their tiny world with a smile that took in the entire vast cavern with its carefully tended gardens and lush green crops broken up by modest patches of grass filled with happy goats right by their lake. Together they admired the prosperous town that was his home, just a short distance off, and the cavern ceiling that was somehow perfectly stable, even as vast as it was, covered in glowing moss that gave the entire cavern the feel of a misty afternoon. Cozy, cool, damp enough for lush green crops, like visiting Ireland on a perfect spring day.

"No, Eric. It's we who thank you. Because if it hadn't been for you and a band of rogues with hearts of gold, this entire sanctuary would have become just another hellish purgatory even worse than the world above, with walkers hunting down whatever panicked survivors manage to survive the initial slaughter, as the town crumbles and burns. Between you and me, I seriously doubt more than a handful of us would even be alive right now."

The smith sighed and shook his head, before smirking at the blade in Eric’s hand. “So train away, hero. God knows we need all the well-trained warriors we can get, if we’re going to have any shot at survival at all.”

Eric chuckled before doing just that, John’s council firmly in mind.

As long as he was in town, he’d draw no weapons from nowhere, and council his friends to keep their secrets close as well.

Because the fight with the dozen or so thugs might have gone down a lot differently, if any snitch had informed them of Eric's trick with his crossbows. A truth that made him feel a bit less bad about leaving no survivors to tell his tale.

It took him some time to get back into the zone, but he didn’t begrudge John’s interruption a bit. He was, in fact, grateful, making a careful point of always checking his surroundings before stepping up his morning training to incorporate his sword-axe bardiche as well, the curve of the massive axe-like blade, as long in the edge as any saber, allowing it to give absolutely devastating sheering cuts to an even greater degree than he had before. In fact, with his enhanced stats and skills, he didn’t think it would be too long before he was cleaving through even John Smith’s enchanted lizard scale armor without needing Burst of Strength, or his weapon perks, at all.

Weapon Perks he still did his best to practice, but only with a far cruder pel that was basically a hunk of toughened lizard hide, gristle, and bone, that he discretely made in the house via his ES Space, bringing it out as if it was the most natural thing in the world.

Doom Slice!

Cleaving Blow!

Piercing Strike!

And the rush he got, attuning himself to the revelations and power of countless thousands of warriors who had lived and died and forged legends long before he was ever conceived, was almost as sweet as the zen of unlocking a new skill. Even if he found his thoughts growing foggy and disjointed, as if he had just endured a 6-hour study session, after using each of those feats twice, alternating saber, bardiche, and the leaf-headed and perfectly balanced spear infused with what Eric just knew was another master-craftsman's essence that a grinning John had given him a short while ago.

As if the fact that the head was bronze and somehow just as strong as any fine steel blade, hadn’t already given it away.

John had definitely given him a look, witnessing firsthand his use of Piercing Strike.

"I know you're tapping into something, kid. And if you told me you had actually picked up some sort of Advanced Tier Warrior class… I wouldn't doubt it for a second." He winked. "Fortunately, this second, far cruder looking pel you made does keep you totally out of sight of anyone peering your way from town, or who isn't already near the mansion. So I doubt anyone's going to realize you're doing anything but striking your target a hell of a lot harder than they ever could,” John assured, giving a casual nod to the spear that had pierced right through scales, rawhide, and bone.

John furrowed his brow. "Now let's see just how much that blow actually fucked up the… well I'll be damned."

"Doubt it," Eric quipped, pulling the weapon out to reveal a hammer-hardened, razor-sharp bronze spearhead that hadn't been damaged at all.

John gave a bemused shake of his head and left shortly after, though not before accepting the cold brews Eric had stored for the man, it being clear that John was pushing himself to the limit with his own work orders, even if he was taking the time to visit their compound twice in a single day.

Eric had taken the man’s words to heart, now training as discretely as he could, awed to find that his hunch had been right. He really could extend the number of times he could use his weapon Perks before his dazed, tired brain turned to mush that might get him killed in a real fight, so long as he alternated between all of them, in what he thought was a truly epic weapon combo.

Before sighing and gazing at the house, wondering if Morlekai would let him train with his pel and weapons in the basement gym. Because it would only be when he was flipping between weapons and weapon power perks in the blink of an eye that he’d be able to sense just how deadly he would, or wouldn’t be, in a real fight, and just how many special attacks he would dare in an actual battle, while still being able to keep 100% focused on his target.

Yet it was only when his day was done that he bothered checking his character sheet, finding sweet satisfaction in all the ways he had grown over the most perilous days of his life.

 

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Eric Silver Level 9 Conscript (You are 100% of the way to level 10!)

 

NOTE! - You have successfully infused your core! All potency earned beyond that required to reach level 10 will be applied to core infusion. You are currently at 40.1% of maximum core density!

 

Physical Characteristics

Strength20 (91%) Your Strength is now superhuman!

Vitality – 22 Your Vitality is now superhuman! (Don’t expect to be able to train this any further in the gym!)

Finesse – 23 (Your inhuman grace and coordination make you a deadly opponent with spear, sword, bardiche, or crossbow! You’re a natural marksman with longbows as well.)

Quickness – 18 (You’re now faster than 99% of all unleveled mortals fighting for their lives!)

Appearance – 10 (Healthy skin now shows between scars that looking increasingly like tattoos! Your lips are fully restored, and you finally have eyebrows and a full head of fiery red hair!)

 

Mental Characteristics

Scholarship – 12

Perception – 18 (You’re more perceptive than most marksmen when it comes to spotting and drawing a bead on your target, or sensing someone trying to draw a bead on you!)

Willpower – 21 (You have the determination and focus to push your body to the limit, resist a Lich’s commands and a Rat Queen’s Compulsion!)

Charisma – 13

 

Potency Pools

Arcane Potential – 14 Your arcane potential exceeds that of 90% of Conscripts hoping for a better class.

(Mana Pool = 168)

Spiritual Energy – 16 Your ability to harness spiritual energy exceeds 98% of novice supplicants. You have managed to discover the rudiments of a Trash Tier cultivation technique!

Soul Reserves – 30 (27) You now possess Multiple Soul-linked Artifacts. Every 25 pounds of Soul-linked artifacts, or 50 pounds of Soul-linked possessions you have formed bonds of familiarity with… will reduce Effective Soul Reserves by 1 additional point, rounded down.

Stamina – 260 Points (Your stamina and rate of recovery are now superhuman! You could easily get gold for distance running in the Olympics, if the modern world hadn't ended!)

Health330 Points

 

Resistances & Recovery

Physical Resistance – 1 (Your bones are exceedingly tough to break, and you now resist a portion of all damage that penetrates your armor!)

Physical Regeneration – You recover 1 Health Point every 12 seconds.

Elemental Resistance – 0

Qi Resistance – 0

Mental Resistance – 2

 

Physical Age = 17 Years (+228 Days & 14 hours forever lost!)

 

Interface Recognized Skills

Acting – Rank 3

Bardiche (Unified) – Rank 13 (Cleaving Blow)

Blade and Shield – Rank 10

Bow (All Types) – Rank 13 (True Strike)

Crossbows – Rank 14 (True Strike)

Dagger – Rank 3

ESS Manipulation – Rank 9

Find Weakness – Rank 7

Iado (Fast-Draw) – Rank 5

Negotiation – Rank 5

Repair – Rank 1

Saber – Rank 12 (Doom Slice)

Spear – Rank 11 (Piercing Strike)

Stealth – Rank 9

Swimming – Rank 2

Unarmed Combat – Rank 4

 

Necromancer Affinities & Skills

Blood Mastery – Rank 14 (Blood Claimance)

Spirit Mastery – Rank 11 (Path of Dominion)

Rituals of Summoning and Binding – Rank 12 (Path of Dominion)

Flesh Sculptor – Rank 12 (Path of Dominion)

You are now a Journeyman of the Path of Blood!

You are now a Journeyman of the Path of Dominion!

You are now an Apprentice Necromancer!

Necromancer Spells

Unorthodox Abjuration – Rank 3

Damage inflicted upon undead: EXTREME. Cost: 300 experience, 50 temporary health, 100 Mana, ½ of Soul Reserves. NOTE! This attack WILL affect Bronze tier targets!

 

Interface Enhancements

Full Neuro-Linguistic capabilities

Extradimensional Storage Space

 

Essences Claimed:

Fire (Rank 1, White Tier)

Wrath (Rank 1, White Tier)

Dominion (Rank 1, White Tier)

 

Essence Related Skills:

Burst of Strength: Rank 8

Infravision: Rank 8

Heat Surge: Rank 7

 

Unformed (Trash Tier) Cultivation Technique (Flame Origin) – Novice – 10%

 

Titles Earned

Necromantic Prodigy – Adept tier Necromantic paths are now open to you!

You are now officially a HERO of the human faction! You now enjoy +4 reaction rolls among humans who know of your new title!

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