The pain dropped her in an instant. Everything she had felt before was a gentle caress compared to this. Her muscles tore, healed, tore again. Her bones snapped and regrew and shattered to dust. Her brain caught fire and leaked out her ears before sucking back into her skull and melting again. Her eyes burned as though dipped in acid. Her lungs filled with razors and were cut to ribbons. Her Sun’s Heart fully ignited and seared her flesh to ashes.

At least it felt that way.

Anya didn’t know when it ended. She only knew pain, and then she stared up at the blue sky above her as it became a memory.

“F-Felix?” Anya asked. Her throat was raw, like she’d been screaming for hours. Maybe she had been.

“Yes?” Felix asked as he floated in front of her field of vision.

“What happened? Did it work? Did I pass out?”

“No,” Felix said. “You just went all rigid and fell over. It’s only been about twenty seconds since you confirmed your class.”

“Damn,” Anya said as she got to her feet. She wobbled for a moment, blinked, and looked down at her hands.
She looked the same. No more growth or muscles than she had had half a minute before. But she felt…

“Oh my god,” Anya said. Fire flowed through her, and her Sun’s Heart burned so bright that Anya was surprised it wasn’t shining out of her chest. Her legs were rockets, her arms volcanoes, and all of her a gleaming beacon of cosmic energy and fire ready to explode at her merest wish.

Anya pointed her finger at a nearby rock the size of a basketball. A tight, searing beam of white fire tinted orange and red at its edges erupted from her fingertip like a laser. It drilled a hole in the rock deep enough to leave a smoking black pit after only a couple of seconds. Anya sent a pulse of energy along the beam and the rock shattered into countless tiny fragments. Anya cut of the flow of energy from her Sun’s Heart to the deadly beam and it vanished.

“Whoa,” she said as she studied smoke drifting from her fingertip. She had spent almost two minutes in front of the metal door at the zoo just trying to melt the lock. With what she had just used, she probably could’ve just cut a hole big enough to walk through, and done it in seconds. Even better, she wasn’t exhausted. She had to take a deep breath, but even the meager winter sunlight had her back to normal within moments.

“Hot damn!” Anya cheered and jumped up in excitement. And she continued to go up, and up, and up. “Oh shit.”

Anya had soared upwards, over four stories into the air, with what had been intended to be a simple celebratory hop. Her regeneration would take care of any broken bones on impact, but it was still going to hurt. She shut her eyes tight.

She cried out as she hit the Earth with a heavy thud and fell onto her back. She waited for the pain to hit, for the sound of her bones cracking to reach her ears, but it never came.

“Uuuuhhh,” Anya said and opened one eye. She had lost her balance on landing and tipped over, and that was all. No broken bones, just a mild ache from her unceremonious landing that faded in seconds.

“That’s a thing,” Anya said to the empty field. And Felix.

“It sure was!” the AI said. “You were really up there! Nice fire beam too!”

“Yeah, thanks,” Anya said and bounced on the balls of her feet. She not only felt lighter, but like every muscle fiber in her body was humming with power, eager to stretch and move and propel her forward.

“You have a lot of updates, by the way,” Felix said.

“I can imagine,” Anya said. She brought up her Flame Dominion skill and whistled.


Her other skills all had similar upgrade notifications, and after checking through all her upgrades, she had a total of one armor token, two weapon tokens, and five tokens for consumables——any item from the RAC store that could be used once and only once, and was under 10,000 RAC.

“So it says I can upgrade stuff? Like I could make my solar glaive stronger?” Anya asked.

“You got it, boss! In the case of your solar glaive, you can make it sharper, more durable, or able to hold greater amounts of energy, or give it other bonuses depending on how many tokens you have.”

“It can hold energy?” Anya asked, then recalled she had overlooked some of the details of the glaive when she had ordered it. “Good to know. And the armor? I used a couple weapon tokens last time to get the glaive for free since it was extra expensive or something. Can I do the same with armor? I assume once I allocate these 10 armor points into an armor skill, I’ll get a token like I did with Flame Dominion. So one flame-armor token, one armor token from getting the armor skill to 10, and one other armor token from my class selection. Right?”

“You bet! You’ll have three armor tokens: 1 free flame-attuned armor, and two free generic armor tokens that lack any specific enhancements. If you combine them, you can get some pretty strong gear for free!”

“What’s something light, with good maneuverability, and protection that I can get with one of the generic tokens and the flame token?” Anya asked, figuring she’d save the third for upgrading whatever she picked. Felix waved his hand and multiple sub-menus appeared, each displaying suits of armor that ranged from a metallic bikini to a full suit of huge plates covered in bone spikes.

“Okay, I said good protection. What the fuck is up with this?” Anya pointed at the metal bikini.

“It has multiple enchantments on it!” Felix said.

“Whatever. Hell no. Does it have an enchantment to make it not pinch or cut into your ass when you wear it?”
“It does not.”

“Hard pass,” Anya said and flicked the sub-menu away. “This one with all the spikes looks too heavy.”

“It is heavier than the others here, but all of these are made from ultra-light materials or feature enhancements to make them lighter than their materials would suggest.”

Anya gave most of the armors an immediate pass for being too bulky, too flimsy, or too silly. She paused on one labeled as “Armor of Oran’s Chosen (Light)(Minor Enchantments).” It wasn’t from any country she knew of, but mostly resembled some kind of Roman or Greek armor by way of a Samurai, with its most prominent characteristic being the feathered crest that ran down the center of the helmet like a mohawk and had a visor that resembled a bird of prey’s hooked beak. It covered all the vital areas. Anya hadn’t allocated her 10 armor skill points yet, so she didn’t know much else about all the individual pieces, but it looked good. The armored pieces were all a burnished dark red fringed with gold, and the areas between them were made of black cloth and russet leather.

“What is Oran’s Chosen?” Anya asked.

“A group of warriors from another planet,” Felix said. “Some of the data here is incomplete, but they sound like holy warriors. Maybe alien paladins? Anyway, they use a form of combat pyromancy that focuses on melee attacks. The armor provides protection from flame and heat and will synergize with your heat absorption ability and allow you to pull more in. It is also incredibly light, but durable, and can stop most small arms fire and melee weapons. In terms of Earth weapons, it can stop .50 caliber ammunition with 75% effectiveness, and conventional melee weapons will either break against the armor or merely dent it. The metal is an advanced alloy the locals refer to as Oranite——I guess would be the closest English translation——named after the deity of a sacred range of volcanoes on their planet.”

Anya didn’t even blink when Felix told her the armor came from alien paladins who forged space metal named after their volcano god. It sounded cool, but after being inundated with alien factoids since Friday night, she had used up most of her shock.

“So two tokens, and what if I upgrade it? What happens?” Anya asked.

“Same thing that will happen to your glaive. It will become stronger, tougher, and you can choose to enhance some of its abilities, such as its heat absorption or the metal’s ability to disperse impacts, though it has upper limits of effectiveness. You will be unable to completely nullify attacks with this armor, but there is other equipment and skills you can take for that.”

“Sounds good to me,” Anya said. She went to her skills menu and had Felix select the appropriate armor skill to drop her 10 points into: PLATE ARMOR (PARTIAL/LIGHT). Felix confirmed that this covered a wide array of armors within the store, from those with magical enchantments to advanced tech armor, and would serve her well. Anya confirmed her points, shook of the skull-tightening headache after a second.

“Now let’s upgrade the impact dispersal thing for the armor, and upgrade how sharp and durable my glaive is,” Anya said and confirmed her purchase. The armor fell with a clatter as it landed in a pile on the ground. It didn’t look quite as impressive in a pile as it had in the menu, but she hadn’t put it on yet. When she had, she would’ve killed for a mirror.

The armor wasn’t just light, it weighed about as much as her leather jacket. As she strapped the various pieces on and got everything into place, she felt her already impressive heat sense extend even further, and the fire from her Sun’s Heart felt even stronger, as if the armor were stoking it.

Felix told her that her solar glaive had been upgraded too. She took a moment to review its full abilities, and nodded in approval. It was sharp enough to cleave through most armor and not dull, and it burned any organic matter it hit. The red gem near the bottom of the blade acted as a kind of heat magnet that sucked in ambient heat passively or actively if Anya directed heat into it. She could use it much as she had the plasma core to recharge her Sun’s Heart, or as an attack itself, and unleash a fiery explosion upon command. And so long as the weapon retained some heat, she could pull it to her just like any other heat source, meaning she could chuck it at will and summon it back to her hand with ease.

“Cool,” Anya said and admired the weapon. It’s cutting edge shone reddish silver in the afternoon sun. The last tokens she had were the consumable ones, and she knew exactly what she wanted to do with those. She had Felix find her something to recharge herself with, and considered just ordering the plasma cores, but the AI found something better.

She ordered three white crystals the size of golf balls labeled as “Star’s Breath,” that each held immense amounts of heat and were used as energy sources on another alien world. The other two tokens were spent on Hellfire Jelly grenades, some kind of advanced explosive that detonated with force and spread a highly adhesive gel that combusted when exposed to air and burned hotter than thermite. They had the appearance of dull silver soda cans with a pin in the side. Lastly, Anya bought herself a tactical belt for 2 RAC to carry her new purchases and then patted herself down.

She still had several dozen skill points, a handful of stat points, and hundreds of thousands of RAC to spend, but she would think about her next upgrade later. She had enough to deal with the pangolin if it decided to go kill-crazy in a worst-case scenario.

“Okay. I think I am all set. I feel like I could knock a mountain on its ass,” she said and took the pangolin out of the V-187 and set it a far distance away. She checked on Ramierez, and when she was sure he was still out cold, returned to the center of the field and stared down at the pangolin.

The creature had emerged from its blanket and scratched at the ground while it stretched its tongue out for food. Anya gripped her glaive in one hand as she reached for the pangolin’s tail with the other. As before, the creature balled itself up at her approach and remained still.

“Here, right Felix?” she asked with her hand over the creatures tail. She removed her gauntlet and her bare fingers hovered above the thick brown scales.

“Right there,” Felix confirmed at her side. “This is exciting!”

“Hoping it doesn’t bite us in the ass,” Anya muttered and touched the pangolin’s tail. There was a flash of yellow light and Anya shielded her eyes with her hand as she jumped back. For a moment she couldn’t even see the pangolin. The light faded and the pangolin was as it had been: curled in a ball, unmoving. Dirt and dust settled around the creature and covered it in a fine layer. The center of its tail glowed yellow, and then faded.

“Felix? Did it work?” Anya asked.

“I think so. It certainly looked like it did, but I can’t be sure. The menu wasn’t designed for this sort of thing,” the AI replied. They both watched the pangolin in tense silence for a full minute. Just when Anya was about to give up and decide to drop the animal off in Africa somewhere, it twitched.

And then it grew.

Anya jumped back as the pangolin doubled in size before her and readied her glaive.

“What’s it doing?” Anya demanded.

“Sorry, no idea, although…” Felix said. “Maybe it’s like you. When you upped your brawn, your body grew to more evenly disperse the muscle. If the menu is making the pangolin smarter, smart enough to use the menu, it could be increasing its brain size, which would mean making its skull bigger, and the body bigger to match. Easiest to just double its size.”

“Maybe,” Anya said. In truth she had no idea. She only knew that the pangolin had gone from the size of a small Labrador to a hulking mastiff in a couple heartbeats. Its claws were the size of butcher knives and its armored scales looked like they could stop bullets.

The pangolin uncurled itself and blinked its much larger black eyes. It stared around at the field, at the AI, and at Anya and Felix. It stood on its hind legs, then turned its head to the side and stretched its long tongue behind it to touch the center of its tail, and a yellow-tinted menu appeared before it. Unlike Anya’s or Carl’s, this menu didn’t have words. It had squiggles, animated symbols, and if Anya’s nose was correct, aromas wafting out of it.

“Weird,” she said.

The pangolin hit a flashing circle in the bottom of the menu, and a yellow AI appeared. Unlike Felix or Ivy, this AI wasn’t at all human looking. It resembled a chubbier, stumpier version of the pangolin, save for its head, which was shaped like a buttercup. It curled and uncurled its body, floated around the menu system and pointed at things, and then flew over to Anya and Felix and pointed at them. The pangolin tracked the yellow AI’s movements, then cocked its head to the side as it stared at Anya.

“Uh, hey,” Anya said. The pangolin turned back to its menu with the yellow AI and the two studied the main screen for several moments.

“What the hell is going on?” Anya asked Felix.

“Well it’s activated the help function, obviously. Though I’m not sure how they’re communicating since the AIs aren’t telepathic, and the pangolin has no language of its own. Maybe the menu gifted it with some form of non-verbal communication to get it started?” Felix shrugged. “It’s exciting though!”

“It’s doing something,” Anya said as the pangolin started to tap at the unknown symbols on its menu. The pangolin tapped on one item several times and then something else twice, then a third item once. The menu closed and the pangolin curled up and shut its eyes. It let out a pained squeaking sound and Anya realized it had just given itself its first skill.

When it stood up again, it stretched its mouth and Anya blinked in surprise. It had a much bigger mouth now, not just a tiny opening for its slender tongue. And it had teeth, and the tip of its tongue furled and unfurled, wider than it had been seconds ago.

The pangolin shook its head, then stared at Anya again and took several waddling steps toward her. Anya gulped and kept her glaive at the ready.

“You save me,” the pangolin said in a quiet, youthful voice as it pointed at itself with its huge claws. “Thank thank. Have ant?”

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