Chapter One Hundred and Forty Seven – 147
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"She's too good!" Alister ducked beneath a scything silver blade, swooping out of the wall before being reabsorbed. "We can't fight her like this!"
Alister came back to his feet, tumbling deftly as more spikes thrust randomly from the rapidly shifting metal. His father had paid outrageous sums for his son to be trained by the best, not just in Mana Skills, but in all aspects of combat. True, he had often neglected his studies in favor of carousing, but he found himself thankful for his father's stubborn insistence. A first time for everything, he mused.
"Then stay back and let us handle it!"
That commoner, Evie Aren, flashed by him. Her preposterous weapon, a spiked chain of all things, was a blur in her hand. It whipped forward and wrapped around Yvette's outstretched arm, the blades digging into the meat of her bicep. The girl hauled on it, pulling herself toward the Bronze Rank with such speed that Alister barely had time to blink before she hit. Yvette shrieked as Evie dug a dagger into her armored robes, and a flow of battered steel hammered outward. Evie flew back, her chain falling slack from Yvette's arm.
Alister gathered Mana for his Grand Impetus, his core funneling it along his pathways until it pooled at the base of his wrist. With a twist and thrust of his enchanted rapier, the Mana discharged in a smooth bolt of blue-white light; pure kinetic force. It was a Skill Alister was greatly proud of, one that he had developed over the course of many years, combining several ancestral techniques with his own ingenuity. It was powerful, more than enough to dispatch an enemy of his own Tier. However, when it came to those of a higher Tier, it was less than optimal.
The strike put a sizable dent in a stretch of steel, but didn't penetrate.
Yvette gathered herself, having screamed herself hoarse, and shoved her mangled arm toward them. A wave of undulating spikes rippled from the walls, pieces disconnecting and flinging at them far faster than Alister would have preferred.
A narrow shield of blue energy sprang into a semi-circle before him, and the projectiles hit it hard. Gouts of stone tore to pieces to either side of Alister as the shield absorbed and diverted the kinetic force, shunting it to either side of himself. An impressive showing, he had to admit, but it was eating through his Mana quickly. The lot of them had been burning their resources ever since arriving in the blasted Domain, and especially since attempting an assault on the keep. Alister stood up, but he was unsteady. His Mana was at 30%.
Arms grabbed him suddenly and Alister found himself hoisted into the air. The uneven flagstones beneath him erupted into jagged shards, a disorienting plume of dust and debris. For an few moments he felt weightless as he looked up at Evie, blood on her brow as she gripped him, but heaviness returned as they both tumbled hard to the ground.
"Ugh, that's hard to do," Aren grunted, rolling to her feet with enviable ease. It was something Alister could have done himself, were he not so tired. As it stood, his process involved more cursing. "Oh good, Vess' turn."
Alister looked up to see Vessilia Dayne, heiress of the Duchy of Pax'Vrell, sail above their heads alongside six floating spears. Three of them zipped forward ahead of her landing, projectiles that Yvette easily deflected. But then the woman followed, and her body fell like a boulder, suddenly speeding up with such celerity that Alister doubted his eyes.
The earth rumbled beneath them as she hit, spear first. Yvette had blocked it, but the steel screamed as it began to give way.
"C'mon pretty boy! Time to work!" Evie dashed ahead, sprinting toward where her chain had fallen.
"Blood and ash, why are they doing this?" Alister said before limbering his arm and hustling after. "Atar's right! There's no benefit here! Win or lose, these monsters will eat us alive!"
Even now, the steel walls protecting them shuddered with rapid, repeated blows. The screech of claws on steel had become a constant refrain. Once they fell, the Revenants would kill them all. So why were they pushing this? Had they truly been Oathbound into it? That was madness!
More spears came crashing down on the defender, this time accompanied by the lashing blows of Evie's chain. Steel flowed and shifted, moving like water under the Will of Yvette, but the attacks took their toll.
Alister, steps away from the vicious melee, thrust his rapier and released another condensed blast of Mana. This time, the force of it sheared through Yvette's battered shield and struck the Journeyman properly. She hissed, her painted face twisting into something cruel and...it was only for a blink, but Alister couldn't shake the sight of it.
A bone-chilling cry cut through the air, followed closely by the bounding form of that strange Dire Hound. Though it wasn't directed at him, Alister could feel a mental Skill wash across the space, targeted on Yvette. The effect failed against her Journeyman stats, but the Hound didn't stop. Sharp planes of air Mana launched outward from it, slicing through the intervening space and putting scratches in the steel wall.
The attacks hadn't the strength to truly injure Yvette, but it all added up. Alister deflected more steel projectiles with Avert, while the others laid into her. For the first time, the noble believed they had a chance to win.
But what then?
Captain Elwick felt a fury he had never known before. These people, these...monsters in Human guise had invaded the Domain, against the Elder's wishes. They had killed, yes, of that there was no doubt. The bodies beyond the Domain were mutilated with the kind of joyous disregard for life that only the worst creatures possessed. It was clear they were the culprits. It was all finally clear. Elwick knew there was no saving them. No forgiveness.
"REEAAAARG!" Elwick lunged, his sword trailing an icy fog as it moved. His Skill, Ethereal Ice, helped to shroud his attacks to make them harder to perceive and defend against, and he knew it would work against the Onslaught. The man was a legend for his durability and resistances, but Elwick's Skill would overcome him because...because it had to. There was no other option.
"Why are you here, Kastos?" Elwick snarled. He needed to understand. To know if there were more of them.
"Takin' a tour," Harn grunted back, twisting sideways and letting Elwick's blade to pass harmlessly. "Maybe kill some monsters."
"Don't be glib, bastard. You're not good at it!" Elwick pressed the attack, pushing the demoted Guilder back, trying to press him toward the steel wall. "You killed people to get in here! I know that's true!"
"How many have you done in," Harn said. He batted aside Elwick's blade, sending a spray of icy fog back toward the captain. The bastard ducked out of his line of sight as the fog rolled over Elwick's eyes. "How many has Teine had you kill?"
"Enough," Elwick grated. His own fog didn't hurt him, but it did make him lose track of the silver warrior. "I follow orders, that's all."
Elwick swung toward the voice, but hit nothing. Then his Obviated Body screamed a warning and the captain threw himself to the ground just as a silver blur swept through the space where his neck had been. Tucking a shoulder, the Bronze Rank rolled to his feet and reset himself. Harn advanced, twin axes out to either side. Nearby, the others were engaged with the Iron Ranks and seemed to have the upper hand. Elwick grinned and felt a delicious, giddy bloodlust dance across his veins. Not for the first time a dark, visceral thrill raced through him at the thought of killing.
"I'll have your head this day," Elwick promised, and activated Rimefang's Lament. His Skill made a sheath of preternaturally hardened ice grew over his long sword, expanding the blade by five inches and lengthening it by another foot. "You face judgement, Harn Kastos!"
Elwick spun his blade, whirling it in a wild maneuver that shouldn't have hit anyone, were it not for his Mana Skill. Rimefang's Lament sent shards of dark ice in every direction he spun the sword, each one trailing his Ethereal Ice fog. He felt them connect with Harn's armor. The sound was almost metal on metal, a clashing that rattled out in a rapid beat. The captain surged forward, leading with his sword. He could practically taste the bastard's blood on its edge, on his tongue, filling him with strength and power and---
Elwick's blade hit something immobile, sending a wrenching pain up his arm and shoulder. The fog of his Ethereal Ice washed over the upraised gauntlet of the Onslaught, the sword trapped between his fingers. Ice crawled down the man's hand and vambrace, lines of frost that spread rapidly, but the man stood tall. Unconcerned.
Before Elwick could react, his sword was twisted to the side. Harn's gauntlet had frozen to the icy blade, and the damn warrior used that against the captain. He hauled back, and the blade ripped from Elwick's grip. Without a focus, Rimefang's Lament faded an instant later, and the sword fell to the ground.
"Teine really messed you up, didn't he?" Harn asked, before Elwick felt a punch deform his breastplate and send him flipping backwards. The uneven flagstones came up hard and the Guilder felt his nose break as he tumbled. "I ain't never heard of an Oath makin' someone crazy, though."
The bastard was talking, TALKING, while they fought. Elwick felt his rage suffuse his Mind with a dark, sizzling impulse, to rend and tear and rip apart the silver monster that was slowly walking toward him. A mad urge to taste his blood and...and...
"I'm sorry ta do it, but I gotta put ya down. Yer dangerous, an' I don't have time ta find out why."
"Murderer," Elwick spat, spraying his blood onto the ground. "Thieves and trespassers! Usurpers!"
"Usurpers?" Harn tilted his head, axe held ready. "Usurpin' what?"
Images flooded Elwick's mind as he pushed himself up, his arms shaking with more than exertion. Images of teeth, of eating, of terrible, terrible things striding in the dark. Of a mother...and children cast aside. A part of him cried out, but it was a small part, barely noticed among the crushing deluge of emotion. Of lies and hunger, endless hunger.
A crown of bone.
Screaming, Elwick summoned four more blades made entirely of ice Mana and sent them hurtling toward the Onslaught.
The man bent his arm, protecting his chest and face with it while his other hand wielded an axe. Harn sheared through two of the ice blades with a single strike. He was unharmed. The Onslaught moved toward him.
Elwick's channels felt as if they were on fire, his Mana gone. Strain marred him, his core, and the captain knew he had little left to give. But he was so angry, and it was as if he were being gifted more strength from that rage.
Now on his knees, the captain focused upon the heat he felt building in his chest. He knew the wrath he felt was unreasonable, that it was mad, that his Elder had never told him to take things so far. That small part of him could see the web of their Oath, once shining, now corroded. Burnt. And along that web came a delirious certainty that he had been lied to...that the man before him was a greater threat...that he shouldn't be killed, but...delivered...
Something burned away inside of him. Something vital. That small voice vanished, popped like a soap bubble. But the rage remained, bottomless and hungry. Despite the wounds that riddled him, Elwick felt good for the first time in a long while. He felt right.
Power surged through him, flushing his limbs with strength. Elwick screamed at Harn as he attacked, lunging from his knees. A sword of ice materialized in his hand, blurring in a savage thrust. The bastard still met each blow with his axes, deflecting the attacks easily, contemptuously.
"How are you even here!?" Elwick snarled, blood drooling from his mouth. It tasted sour on his tongue. "The Domain should be closed to you!"
"So they did alter the shell," Harn grunted, somewhat wryly. "Knew it felt weird comin' in."
"How?" Elwick flared Verglas Edge, diverting his attention to summoning not many blades, but a single one. Mana vapor coalesced above the warrior, a guillotine of power, just at the cusp of solidifying. Harn was only a few steps away. "It...should have stopped you..
"Can't be tellin' you all my secrets," Harn said as their blades locked together and Elwick pulled him close. The man tilted his helmeted head in confusion. "Your eyes..."
The blade, nearly the size of a wagon, dropped with all the subtlety of a cannon. Held fast by Elwick's sudden surge of strength, Harn could do nothing but accept the inevitable. It hit hard, hard enough to shatter the flagstones for several feet in all directions, immediately coating them in frost. Elwick was thrown back, skipped off the ground like a rock on a lake, before fetching hard against the steel wall.
Yet before blackness claimed him, there was a surge of terrible, primeval crimson and the stench of blood.
Felix would like to have said he hesitated when presented the choice. An explosion of purple-white and silvery Mana to their left, while to their right a furious exchange between the Iron Ranks and Yvette. The explosion had been a powerful thing, nearly throwing him and Atar off their feet, and he worried that Harn had not survived such an assault. But Pit was to the right.
So on he went, dragging a gaping Atar with him.
It was easy enough to bridge the distance with Unfettered Volition, the wild alterations to the ground barely hampering his speed. Felix readied a Skill, and he felt Atar muster his concentration and re-summon his fiery crown. But by the time they'd reached them, it was over. Yvette was down on the ground, a rapier and spear to her throat.
"You're all..." Felix smiled. "You're okay."
Pit ran up to him and jumped, putting his big paws on the Nym's shoulders in his excitement. The hidden tenku was streaked with blood and caking dirt, but his Health hadn't dipped too badly. Felix fished a monster core from his pack and surreptitiously fed it to the chimera. Pit snatched it up, eating it in seconds and hummed contentedly as threads of System power began to unspool within him.
"Well enough," Vess agreed, pausing to smile back at him. She was bleeding a bit from her left cheek and her cloak had some new holes in it, but her Health was well above 80%. "Never had to fight a defensive specialist before. Harder than I expected."
"Highest flame, Alister, you're bleeding!" Atar rushed to the nobleman's side, but he was waved off.
"It's fine, Atar. Just got winged, is all," he said, but Felix felt a light trilling from his Spirit. It felt...pleased?
"Pretty boy over here took a wall spike for me," Evie said with a grin and a nudge at Alister's back. The young man blanched at the movement and had to put up his rapier. "My hero."
"I don't appreciate being in another's debt, Aren," he sheathed his rapier. "Now we're square. Ah! Lilian! Dabney!"
As the nobleman rushed over to a mound of rocks, Felix looked over to the other side of the enclosure. It had devolved into a cloud of stone dust and Mana vapor. He could feel someone moving about, but he wasn't entirely sure it was Harn. Silently, Felix stepped forward, putting himself between the cloud and his friends.
Then a body was sent sailing through the air, one in armored blue robes and run through by a large shard of ice. He landed hard in front of them without rolling, but Felix's Eye could tell the man was barely alive. Again. Blood poured from his many wounds, looking darker than it should have as it pooled beneath him. Emerging behind him was Harn, still fully armored, though his pauldrons and breastplate sported a savage looking rent. Frost trailed from the man as he walked up to Elwick and put his boot down on his chest.
The Guilder twitched several times but couldn't quite make his arms work well enough to push Harn's boot away. He resorted to writhing beneath it, instead.
"You alright, Harn?" Evie asked. "Your armor's busted. I've never seen it busted before."
Harn tried to shrug and winced instead. He nodded to Atar, Alister and the others. "Your captain packs a mean punch. Lucky fer me, it wasn't mean enough."
A discordant twang, like a steel string snapping, rippled through the air. Felix's ears perked up, and the hair on the back of his neck stood on end as that ambient heat he'd been feeling all this time turned into a bonfire. He shouted and pushed the others back, away from Elwick as the man's skin began to dry and blister beneath the invisible heat. Felix's nerves screamed out in pain, but he pushed it aside, muscled it into the back of his throat as he watched what happened next.
Elwick had started to convulse, and his body at first seemed to dehydrate and shrink beneath the unnatural heat. But what Felix had mistaken for blistering resolved into small thumbnail-sized callouses that surfaced on his exposed skin, overlapping and growing as the strangeness continued. That discord he sensed grew ever stronger, and within him the whispering Maw snarled wordlessly.
This was the corruption. But it wasn't the Maw's own.
This is something new...
Felix felt it, like a figure standing at the edges of his vision, and as Elwick writhed and convulsed it grew all the stronger. The man's body was looped and knotted with shimmering threads, enough to weigh down any person. Hundreds of them at least, each of them spreading far and wide in a web Felix couldn't hope to perceive in its entirety. A few of them radiated outward, binding Atar, Alister, Lilian, Dabney. But on Elwick and Yvette, the threads weren't silver, not anymore. They crawled with a dark crimson stain, corroded by it yet paradoxically strengthened.
The threads extended into the distance, toward the supposedly secret entrance they had used. Felix, unable to help himself, pushed. He followed the threads back, back until he sensed something holding onto these threads, a powerful figure that shone like the sun at dawn. Blinding, golden.
Elder Teine, they'd called him.
Felix yanked himself back to reality and saw, to his horror, that Elwick had clambered back onto his feet. Only, it was not Elwick, not anymore. His bones had shifted and deformed, his once-handsome face splitting down the middle as the man's teeth fell out. The scaling of his face and arms was more complete now, darkening toward a rust-red color save for where slick veins pulsed obtrusively along the inner parts of his limbs.
"Kill...kill you...eat you..."
Elwick's face split open with a meaty hiss and teeth the size of daggers leaped from hideous, newly formed gums.
"Kill you! Eat...you!"
Kill it, Felix! Destroy it!
Reign of Vellus!
Felix didn't need the Maw's increasingly vibrant advice to make a move. He gripped the newly born Revenant with his Will as lightning played along its battered armor. The robes burnt away under the barrage of azure electricity, but the hide beneath was tougher than it looked. A barrage of other Skills hit it moments later, fire and ice, stone and silver spear. But the thing did not buckle. The creature that was once Elwick took a single step forward, pushing at Felix with an overwhelming Strength. He had Reign of Vellus flared as hard as he could, but it barely inconvenienced it.
"Punish! Eat! Fee---!"
With a powerful swing, a silver axe bisected the monstrosity's neck. Elwick's deformed head hit the flagstones with a heavy, wet thud.
Then Yvette began to scream.