The Games We Play
The situation could have been a lot worse, I grudgingly admitted. Ignoring…everything even remotely related to Ziz, I was unbelievably lucky.
Not because of the ship, even if things weren't as bad as they could have been. The ship was horribly damaged, Ziz having skewered it with its beak to see if it was worth eating and punched a hole most of the way through it in the process. It had thankfully missed a lot of stuff that was really irreplaceable, but it had still ripped through wires and metal and more; you couldn't inflict that much damage on an Airship and not hit something important. It hadn't eaten the engine or anything, but it was still pretty bad.
Not really because of where I was, either. I was on Mantle now, which might have seemed lucky, but as a continent, Mantle was kind of, uh, big. I was on one of the frigid islands to its west, which I wasn't even sure counted as part of Mantle proper, even if my quest had apparently accepted it—though I didn't even get a level out of it, which was making me start thinking I wasn't getting paid enough for this shit. I mean, I was used to annoying, dangerous quests for pretty shitty rewards, but that was in actual games. Given that I was taking my life in my hands here, I figured I should get more meaningfully compensated.
Regardless, I was on Mantle, but though there were plenty of worse places to be I was still hundreds of miles away from my destination and without a ship I'd have to trek across an ungodly amount of ice and snow to reach my destination. So that wasn't the reason, either.
But the saving grace was that my power, as always, was bullshit. Because of it, I'd figured all of that out in less than a minute. With it, I thought the situation may not have been completely hopeless. It was pretty much built for situations like this, honestly—situations where I had few solutions but a lot of time, because it's not like I was going anywhere without the White Whale.
The ship itself, I'd quickly realized, was fucked. I didn't have the skill to fix it and I didn't have the parts; it was beyond my ability to completely repair. Or rather, beyond my current ability to repair. Since my power boiled the issue down to my skills being too low, however, I was better off than pretty much anyone else in the world would have been. I had the blueprints in my head, a full understanding of how the ship should have worked, and I had some of the materials and a way of actually working with them.
I'd turned everything off to keep from wasting power, gathered up some of the new scrap metal, and started grinding my Crafting skill, making simple things at first, then more complicated things, building them up and melting them down with Crocea Mors, again and again. The sun rose and set several times, and the skill improved until I could ply it roughly to my purpose and started repairing some of the damaged portions of the ship. A good amount of the damage was beyond me regardless of my efforts, for I simply didn't have the materials or a way of working with them, but the metal portions which made up most of the huge hole in the ship? That I could do something about and I did.
By noon on the third day, the obvious damage—the huge hole, primarily—was gone, though parts laid exposed for later repairs. I'd accomplished the work of heavy machinery and hundreds of men with just my brain, Aura, and Crocea Mors, fixing it up. It wasn't the prettiest patch job ever, but that was fine because I wasn't trying to win a beauty contest with it.
But it still wouldn't fly. I'd mended the superficial bits but airships, like beauty, were more than skin deep. I couldn't fix all the damage on the ship by twisting metal alone, not with the damage to the wiring and various systems within it; getting the ship in the air again would have been, for anyone else, a hopeless prospect.
I wasn't anyone else, though. I was the Gamer—and I was stubborn as hell.
As another point of dubious luck, Ziz had chosen a more or less empty island. I'd explored it during my first day here and hadn't found any sign of human civilization, past or present. As far as I could tell, there were no Grimm on the Island, either—if there ever had been, they'd either left or ran away after Ziz's arrival and hadn't come back even after it curled around another mountain and went to sleep again. That was both good and bad; no Grimm to fight meant I couldn't level up but it also meant I didn't have to put up with the constant distraction of attacks, allowing me to focus on my current problem.
And maybe, just maybe, a possible solution.
I'd kept Levant and Crocea Mors manifested and by my side at all times. Part of that, of course, was to continue to train my Elemental skills—but a larger part was simply so I wouldn't be alone on this island, immediate danger or not. Either way, it was for the best, because of what I needed to do next.
I'd meant to do this for a while now, but had never had the time. The last few weeks had been a constant rush, an effort to get so many things done in too little time. But now, thanks to Ziz Airline's horrible flight, I had all the time in the world and a pretty pressing need.
"I, Jaune Arc, call upon the ancient contract of ages past to summon thee," I said, standing before a trio of prepared circles, readying myself for one ritual after another. I wasn't certain this would work, but…nothing ventured, nothing gained, right? "I hope that you heed my call. Come, Fire Elemental!"
The makeshift fire I'd built in the first circle erupted suddenly, blazing higher than it should have. A small figure gathered at the center of the flame, bronze skin and blazing red hair. He was a diminutive figure but somehow cut an image of nobility despite that, garbed in cloth of shifting patterns in reds and blues. The cloth left half his chest bare in a fashion that seemed dimly familiar and he looked up at me with eyes that glowed like coals.
But I wasn't done yet.
"I, Jaune Arc, call upon the ancient contract of ages past to summon thee," I spoke again, voice rising. "I hope that you heed my call. Come, Water Elemental!"
From a bowl I'd crafted and filled with sea water rose a small, beautiful figure. A formal gown of deep blue was trimmed in the white of sea foam—the same color as her hair, white trailed down her back like a waterfall. Her skin was light blue, darkening as it dropped lower to royal colors by her hips. Below that, her legs were amorphous, calling to mind both the liquidity of water and the scales of a snake or fish. Her eyes were solid black, like the depths of the ocean, glimmering slightly in the light.
"I, Jaune Arc, call upon the ancient contract of ages past to summon thee," I spoke once more, exhaustion beginning to set in as my power was drained away. Nonetheless, I was determined to continue—and it would have been rude to stop now besides. "I hope that you heed my call! Come, Lightning Elemental!"
Lightning fell from the blue sky, reaching down to strike the circuit I'd made out of a few spare parts on the ship and some yellow Dust I'd set within the last circle. I hadn't been sure it would work, with the ritual predating the discovery of Dust, but Lightning was vital to my plans. Hell, I was glad this was working period—I'd prepared for it by meditating one the elements beforehand like I'd done with Crocea Mors, but even with my Nature Affinity, I hadn't been certain I'd succeed. I'd been relieved and overjoyed when I'd developed the necessary Affinities.
Nonetheless, I was extremely glad when no thunder followed the strike, though I was performing the ritual as far from Ziz's mountain as possible. Instead, the bolt gathered, congealing into a final figure. The only way to describe him was 'bright.' His flesh, his clothes, his hair—the entirety of his form was colored as if someone had trapped Lightning in a human form. Which, I suppose, I had. White cloth, white skin, white hair, white eyes, he seemed solid but only momentarily, shifting slightly between blinks of an eye. At times, he would flicker, momentarily facing another direction before facing me. I couldn't make out precisely what he was wearing, because it seemed to shift, merging with his body for an instant before tearing itself away in bizarre, twisting shapes.
You call upon the sea—
The flame, Fire finished. Why?
I knelt and bowed, putting all the respect I could into the gesture. Whether because of their natures or my proficiency with Summoning Elementals, they seemed more eloquent, intelligent, and dangerous.
"I'll begin in accordance with the ancient rituals," I replied. "My name is Jaune Arc. You have heard my name; please tell me yours."
The three figures looked at me, tiny but judging, and for a moment all was silent. I wondered if I'd erred in summoning more than one, if I'd made a mistake or insulted them. There hadn't been anything about it in the knowledge I'd gotten about Summoning Elementals and I was pressed for time, but…
Suddenly, I was gone. I was torn away in a storm, drowning, burning, falling, and flying all at once. I flew apart in a million pieces and gathered, flashing into existence and fading. I grew and devoured, growing larger as I moved, wiping away all in my path. I covered the world, flowed through it, a power that was everywhere, enormous, and yet somehow unseen.
I saw myself and I was unravelling, coming apart in light and sound, unable to control where I was going, unable to remain. I lived and died between moments and yet in that moment I lit up the world.
I saw myself and I was burning, being devoured even as I devoured in turn. I grew, expanded, ignited, and consumed even as I lost my figure, my form, and became nothing more than heat and light—and I shared both with the world.
I saw myself and I was melting, liquefying in an instant and falling to the ground in a splash. I felt my pieces separate and recombine, was immobile even as I shifted and grew to be everywhere, in everything.
Abruptly, I was not alone. Three figures stood with me, or rather one figure did from three different perspectives. Even as I unraveled, I came together, racing through the sky to return to my body. Even as I burned, I found myself centered, the brightest flame at the core. Even as flowed away, I returned, rising from the earth and falling from the sky to return to the shape I knew.
I felt them and they felt me and we felt free.
My name is Vulturnus, the storm whispered.
I am Xihai, said the sea.
Know me as Suryasta, spoke the flame.
We are one as the ancient contract dictates.
"Our souls are one," I agreed.
I am Vulturnus.
I am Xihai.
I am Suryasta.
"I am Jaune Arc."
Until our souls meet their ends—
"We will be forever one."
Then know; should the skies be torn through with light—
Should the land fall beneath the sea—
Should the whole of your world burn to ashes—
Even then I will protect you.
The moment they finished speaking, I was gone, dropping into a deep sleep. I wasn't sure how long I slept, but the sky was dark when I woke. My dreams had been at once bizarrely joyous and troubled, of a world that was burning, drowning, and fading away, wrecked by titans of fire, water, and thunder. I stood amongst them, beside them, within them as they fought and felt at once like nothing but an insect and all but a god.
When I opened my eyes, I was not alone. I felt Crocea Mors humming in my gauntlets and Levant curled up at one side. Xihai rested at the other and Suryasta and Vulturnus at my head and feet respectively; far enough not to shock or burn, but close enough that I knew they were there. They didn't need to sleep, I knew, but they didn't want to leave me alone while I rested—and somehow, I'd held onto them even whilst sleeping.
A skill has been created through a special action! Through practice with many elements the skill 'Elemental Mastery' has been obtained!
You've obtained the title 'Elementalist'!
I huffed out a quiet breath as I sat back and waited, not wanting to wake them up. I'd let them sleep for now.
And then, we'd see if I could make a broken ship fly.
Later, I sat in the cockpit of the White Whale, my eyes closed in meditation. As I felt rivers of power flow, converge, and then separate in the world around me, the whole of the White Whale was revealed to my senses—as were my Elementals within it. Each stood at a different position within the ship, serving a different purpose as they sent tides of power flowing through the White Whale.
As ever, Crocea Mors moved through the ship itself, refining, hardening, and compensating for things around it. He made some parts harder, others more flexible, and strengthened the engine so it could hold up to the strain it was being put under. Suryasta and Levant stood within the belly of the ship, power mixing within the engine in a cooperative effort working to fuel, empower, and breathe life into the ship itself. Levant drew in air and, together with the ship's normal processes, Suryasta heated it, aiding the ship in generating thrust. Turbines spun while hot air expanded, aiding the White Whale's super jet. The two of them focused the result, keeping ahold of the expelled heat and air even as it fed directly into the energy converter.
There, Vulturnus was waiting. As wind energy was converted into electricity, he took ahold of it, bolstered it with his own strength, and feed it back into the system—and back into the engine itself. More than that, he guided it through the ship impossibly, sometimes between broken wires that I still needed to connect. I was already considering what alternatives I could make with Crocea Mors help; safer and more efficient replacements, if ones that wouldn't function without the aid of someone capable of manually controlling electricity. But for the moment this was just a test, a practice run to see where I stood and if it was possible.
And so far, it seemed to be working. Lights that should have been cut off from power turned on, parts of the ship that should have been inactive responded. Taking advantage of the systems already in place within the ship, of the loopholes and tricks a structure as massive as the White Whale used to soar, I thought I could do the same despite the damages. I wasn't powerful enough to make the ship fly solely on my own power—not yet, at least—but by combining my power and control with the processes the ship was designed around and the Dust it used for fuel…
It was possible. It was possible. I was absolutely certain of that, even without rising from my meditation, because I could still feel it. Despite all the reasons it shouldn't have been able to, this broken ship was flying, hovering just above the ground.
It was hard. I could feel my Elemental's focus, their concentration on their goals. I'd minimized the costs as much as possible to make it easier during my brief moments of lucidity, cutting corners where I could the save us all the effort. Systems that were unnecessary for now were checked once to confirm whether or not I could use them and then deactivated. I'd stored all the perishables on the ship in my Inventory and shut off the lights, the air conditioning, everything else I could to conserve power. With nothing but the bare essentials, I focused entirely on the ship, stretching my power through it as I pushed myself to the limits.
We had been at this for days now. I'd scarcely broken my meditative vigil since we'd begun, so I wasn't entirely certain how much time had passed, but I was certain at least that much time had gone by. Xihai stood beside me, using her power to aid me however she could, whether to heal me or help restore my strength, but even with her help the first…long time had been hard, like an impossibly vast weight I couldn't put down. Even with the restorative power of my meditation, I'd quickly found my clothes soaked through with sweat; a distant, only mildly distracting sensation on my physical form, away from it as I was. The exhaustion that had caused it, however, was something I'd been extremely aware of with my enhanced perspective.
Raising the ship off the ground required constant, precise use of my different Elementals. The only reason I'd been able to maintain it at all in the beginning was because of Soul of the World, of precisely how it worked and how far I'd leveled it. When I'd first gotten the skill, all I'd been able to do was fall into a deep trance to see the flows of energy through the world around me, focusing carefully on a precise flow to make it function as I wished. I brought the energy up through my body and back out, a careful, measured, controlled change to the natural world as I became one with it.
And, really, that was still all I could do. While meditating, I had to focus almost entirely on a single, repetitive pattern.
It's just that in this case, the pattern was a little different.
I'd summoned up all my Elementals in their immaterial state before falling into my trance and then I'd focused on exactly what I needed, narrowing my view of the vast world. I'd imagined exactly what would need to happen, every shift in the engine, the motion caused by heat, every movement of the wind, every flow of electricity, every part of the process that governed the ship. I blotted out everything else until I was a machine dedicated to that single cycle, of imagining that one thing again and again and again to the exclusion of all else. My Elementals felt those thoughts through their link to me, and through them I'd made it a reality.
The result was amazing even to me in the moments I could spare it attention; something only made possible through a number of different factors lining up. If my Elementals had not been capable of so accurately making my thoughts reality while immaterial, I couldn't have done it. If not for the MP regeneration my Wisdom granted, I wouldn't have had the power for it. If not for the tremendous focus I had while meditating, I couldn't have even successfully thought it. And even with all of those things, I wasn't sure if it would have been feasible without my new skill and title.
Elementalist, the title I'd obtained by gaining five Elementals, simply increased all my Elemental Affinities by ten while I had it active, greatly increasing the power of all my elementals as a result. Elemental Mastery, the skill I'd received for apparently the same reason, was a bit more complicated in how it worked—but even more valuable. The first effect was similar to my physical Mastery skills; a percentage increase to attack and defense and such. Both seemed based on my Affinities as much as the skill's level, though, producing some interesting results and implications. I couldn't be sure, but if I got the skill to a hundred and an Affinity to a hundred…would I be immune to the Element in question? The multiplier I received towards attack was much greater than the damage reduction, but gaining immunity to specific elements wasn't unusual in games by any means. Generally there was a bit more balance, except with really powerful, hard to acquire items but…with my ability…well, I really wouldn't be surprised. Between that and Physical Endurance, I just had to shrug. Maybe I'd be immune to harm if I could get all my defensive skills maxed out, maybe not. I'd know the truth someday, probably, but I had a long, long way to go before then.
Its other ability, however, was what made it truly powerful—Elemental Mastery effected how the skill which had produced it functioned, improving Summon Elemental. Summon Elemental worked in a very specific way as it leveled up; rather than a percentage based increase per level, roughly every five or six levels I became able to summon another elemental. For example, when the skill had been level twenty, I'd been able to summon three Air Elementals. Instead of doing that, however, I could also just summon one, and it would have the power of all three combined. While there were situations where quantity surpassed quality and a small number of carefully positioned Elementals might be preferably, I generally just made the strongest ones I could because of the expansion to range, versatility, and power. Summoning different Elementals worked rather similarly, dependent on my 'pool.'
That is, when I summoned Crocea Mors and Levant to aid me with the White Whale, I'd had a pool of eight possible Elementals and had split that between them because I'd needed the skills of both. Generally, I made each level four, though depending on the situation I could go all in for one or the other or any combination of the two.
But Elemental Mastery changed that. Because of it, I could maintain completely different spells for individual Elementals, using multiple Summons that each allowed for a full 'pool', up to a limit determined by my Elemental Mastery. I couldn't use multiple castings to summon many versions of the same Elemental, but I could summon Crocea Mors at full power with one spell and then Levant with another, paying the cost to maintain them separately—an added cost, perhaps, but one far below the additional benefit.
It was an amazing increase in the skill's power. Originally, I'd planned to use them while they weren't manifested, channeling my own power through them to use their Elements instead of summoning them to fight independently. I'd have split my power four ways between Metal, Air, Fire, and Lightning, calling each with two Elementals worth of power. Summoned that way, they would draw directly upon my MP, of which I had a great deal, to hopefully overcome their individual weakness.
But…it was an inefficient use of the skill, at least for something this prolonged. While they didn't draw power except when in use while not manifested, they required MP proportional to that use and focus to control the result. If I channeled my power through Suryasta, for example, and used it constantly for high-performance stuff like this, the cost in power and concentration would quickly become overwhelming and wasteful. It was the difference between a maintained skill and an Active one, with the former perhaps having a higher base cost but the latter needing to be paid with each and every use. Depending on what I was doing, one could be a better idea than the other, but for something of this magnitude…just lifting the White Whale like I was doing now cost well over two hundred MP a minute and I couldn't do anything else.
I'd figured that, honestly. That had been the real reason I'd summoned a Water Elemental…the truth was that I'd been all but completely certain splitting my power that way wouldn't be enough to accomplish anything. Four Elementals at two 'points' most likely wouldn't have even been enough to make the White Whale fly like this again, much less accomplish anything with it—but I'd wanted to be able to say I'd done everything in my power to try and succeed before returning home a failure. If that had happened, I'd have put my power in Xihai and tried to sail for land; I'd probably have tried to get to Atlas and then figured out a way home from there.
But five Elementals with the power of ten or more? That was something else entirely.
I'd grinded my skills relentlessly the moment I figured out how they worked, trying to raise Elemental Mastery as high as possible, so as to increase the number of Summons I could use at once. In the process, maintaining multiple Elementals had improved my Summoning skill, especially as I had done literally nothing but meditate, maintain, and use their power for literal days. The constant meditation had been good for training Soul of the World, though that skill insisted on being slow as all hell in improving, and it seemed that even just hovering helped improve my skill as a Pilot. With the latter's passive bonuses affecting the performance and efficiency of the ship…
I could feel my power growing, just as I could feel their power doing the same. My Elementals strengthening as the days wore on, growing as my skill increased and then faster when I was able to maintain their existences. I wasn't certain how that worked exactly—if they were growing with me, if I was reaching out to grasp power that I couldn't touch before as represented by the Summon skill—but it didn't matter. One spell became two then three then four. I guided them fully with my mind at first, directing their power through the White Whale as we reached higher together, submerging myself in the flows of the world until I was nothing but a recording, playing the same image over and over. I concentrated wholly on that one goal to the point that I left my physical body completely in Xihai's care. I all but abandoned the material world in my concentration and it worked. The strain that had at first seemed unbearable had lessened and become something we all lifted together. I empowered my Elementals and they supported me until what had seemed impossible was in my grasp. My power grew as I struggled, stretching out to my allies, my friends, and I knew.
If it was like this, I could do it. If it was like this, I wasn't alone—and together we were strong. I could still complete the mission and I would. It was too early to give up, too late to turn back, and time to move forward. We could do this, I know we could.
I took a deep breath and slowly drew myself from my trance, opening my eyes to watch the sun set far in the West. As my concentration eased and then faded, I felt my friends stepping into place to take up the burden.
The ship shuddered but did not fall.
Name: Jaune Arc
Class: The Gamer
Title: The Tiger
STR: 41+26.7 (65%) = 67.7
VIT: 44+28.6 (65%) = 72.6
DEX: 41+26.7 (65%) = 67.7
INT: 60+39 (65%) = 99
WIS: 60+39 (65%) = 99
Status: Metal Element Affinity 10, Air Element Affinity 10, Fire Element Affinity 10, Water Element Affinity 10, Lightning Element Affinity 10.
MONEY: 49800 Lien