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77 Toxic to the Core

 Marni Wilf trudged through the snow with his caravan.

He was leaving Lancaster City.

It wasn't that he couldn't move directly from the city to the underground stronghold. What he was worried about was that he might have attracted some unfriendly attention after he began selling those two new potions. If he took too direct a route to where he was going, then although he might appear to have vanished at first, it was likely that someone would eventually discover the secret entrance to his hide-out, and that could be a real problem.

As such, every time he'd finished with his business within the city, he'd take the long way back around, and access Lancaster City's sewers from the outside. As one of the players, he had a map of the subterranean tunnel network, so there was no fear of getting lost.

However, after doing things this way several times, events nevertheless began to progress towards his worst case scenario.

A faint shadow flitted past Marni, and gave him a little nod.

\"As expected, someone suspicious is following me?\" he sighed.

The spirit began pantomiming various gestures. Marni watched for a moment, then cocked an eyebrow. \"That's a lot of people. Three dozen? Mostly a bunch of hired vagrants? That's fine, then.\" He grinned, and a nasty sort of light flashed through his eyes.

If it had been something like the Holy Corps of the Brilliant White Church coming after him, he'd definitely be running for dear life right this very moment, and he would never bring his wares to Lancaster City again until he'd risen in level some more.

But if it was just some random collection of bums, that indicated the person pulling the strings was of limited means.

After Marni parted ways with the Silver Chimes Merchant Guild, he'd made some changes to his caravan: Now, all the drivers and guards were players too!

Although Ivan was the only one among them who'd even gone through a class change, the rest of the newer players had nevertheless been seasoned with time, and they were now at an average level of 10. Never mind a rabble like this-even if they were up against proper troops, equal to them in number, they'd have the upper hand all the same!

Before long, the leader of the pursuers noticed that Marni was meandering aimlessly in circles, and understood that they'd been spotted. Rather than beating around the bush any further, they decided to just make use of their superior numbers, and quickly surrounded the caravan.

Although Marni had already been informed by his summoned spirit about how most of the pursuers were nothing to worry about, when he saw them in their rags, shivering in the snow, yet shouting and posturing in a desperate attempt to appear menacing... Marni couldn't help but sigh.

\"Mister Wilf, I congratulate you on the success of your new Cola products.\" The one in the lead had some nice stuff on him, and so did the two henchmen flanking him. It was a stark contrast from the rest of the motley crew.

They outnumbered Marni's people at least three-to-one, and so they probably felt like they were in full control of the situation. With a flippant smirk, the leader of the pursuers continued, \"I wonder if you'd be interested in becoming partners? We could make it rich together.\"

\"Ah, not interested.\" Marni couldn't be bothered to banter with him like this, and gave him a curt reply.

The other man's expression darkened instantly. Examining Marni's cold indifference, he snarled, \"You'd better give it some careful thought. At the moment, I'm still willing to let you be somebody, moving forward. We can each have a slice of the pie. If you really don't know how to count your blessings, I may have to resort to a slightly more direct approach, in order to persuade you to share all your secrets with me!\"

\"Alright. After much deliberation, I remain uninterested.\" Marni felt as though he could see a puff of smoke rising out from the other man's head, but couldn't decide if it was from rage or shame.

Whichever the case, this signified a breakdown of negotiations.

\"Beat them up! Take whatever you want from their bodies and their wagons!\" With that, the horde of hobos attacked.

\"I feel sorry for you guys, but I must warn you nevertheless: Lay a hand on any one of us, and you'd better be ready to die-\" Before Marni could finish, some of the vagrants charged in at him, eyes on the fine jacket he was wearing.

Marni could only sigh again.

\"Well, you brought this upon yourselves.\" As though refusing to defend himself, he laid down both hands. Then he whispered, \"I'm Iron Man.\"

Next instant, red and gold armor plating flew in out of nowhere, assembling themselves upon Marni's body with resounding clangs, forming a full-body suit of metal armor!

This startling development left the attackers stunned. Even the one commanding them, not far away, was gaping in shock. Then, he was looking upon Marni's armor with undisguised greed.

\"Jarvis!\" Marni called out, and his spirit wreathed the armor in an ethereal blue glow, the light shining from the seams between the armor plates.

This was something amusing that Marni had discovered through experimentation: If a Spirit Swordsman progressed down the Evil Blade skill tree, their spirit would attach itself to their weapon, enhancing the damage done with their skills.

And yet, here and there were Swordsman skills which involved foregoing the blade to attack enemies bare-handed. One key example was 'Shoulder Throw', which was available at Level 3.

If no sword was equipped, what would that spirit enhancement technique do? The answer was that it would be applied upon one's armor, if that could somehow be perceived as a 'weapon'! This greatly augmented the properties of the armor-and when using Brawling skills such as Shoulder Throw, the damage would be greatly increased as well!

This was the personal configuration which Marni had arrived at through his own initiative. It might also be worth mentioning that when he first formed a pact with his spirit, 'Jarvis' was a name suggested by the system, and since he thought it sounded alright, he'd kept it.

\"Iron Palm! Meteor Slam! Dragon's Fang! Ora-ora-ora-ora-ora! You're already dead!\"

With frightening speed, the red-and-gold armored figure unleashed a series of attacks upon the hobos leading the charge. Their leader only saw Marni's fists as a blur, a storm of shadows, and then the men closing in around Marni exploded in a shower of blood!

Marni was one of many players who had come from a similarly humble background as their adversaries. It was precisely because of that, that they understood how precious their new lives were. They wouldn't let anyone take it from them just for the sake of a bit of pity, and struck down the oncoming vagrants without hesitation.

Both sides had barely made contact for a moment, and the enemy forces had already suffered grievous losses.

Not even the bodyguards, for all their fancy equipment, were any match for the players. One could tell that they'd been well-trained, but they little experience with real combat. The players, hardened by actual life-or-death battles, made short work of them.

\"Wait, you can't kill me... I can give you money...\" The leader of the pursuers had finally realized the gravity of his situation. Seeing that his pleas were falling upon deaf ears, he turned to flee, but Marni easily pinned him down.

Knowing there was no escape for him now, he roared furiously at Marni. \"Just you wait... my father will avenge my death!\" With these words, his body expanded rapidly, like a balloon.

Sensing danger, Marni tried to get away, but when the man's body exploded, if not for the full-face mask he was wearing, he'd be splattered all over with black blood.

\"Well I'll be... I didn't judge him capable of such viciousness,\" Marni muttered soberly.

Having mopped up the last of their opponents, Ivan walked over and took a look at Marni. \"Eh, why is your health falling?\" he wondered aloud.

\"What? Holy crap! When did I get poisoned? Ahh... that guy was toxic to the core! Damn it, I'm dead again...\"

Before he could finish that last thought, Marni keeled over to the ground.