Interlude - Anton
He had made damned sure that the entire complex was thoroughly cleansed, yet he had failed in his mission. The summoned demon had easily managed to escape, and the leader of the cult had nearly killed Anton before using a teleport spell to vanish.
It wasn't often that a cult's location was revealed to the Order, and he had fumbled the chance to eliminate them.
Scrubbing every bit of the thick cloud of demonic aura from the area had taken way more time than he had to spare. He had to go through each and every room to purify it, turning all the items, ingredients, and even furniture into scrap. Everything in the entire complex was now dust except for the final room where the main confrontation had taken place.
The ceiling in one corner of the room bulged down, having collapsed from the stress of the battle. He had already made gouges across the floor, turning the summoning circle grooves into an unreadable chicken-scratch of rubble.
Anton glanced over at the pile of lower-ranking initiates. The death of so many arcanists and the loss of a base and the supplies would set back the Cult of the Black Candle for quite some time he hoped. Only the fact that he had lost his chance to take out one of their seven 'Unholy Bishops' soured his mood.
There was a silver lining in all of this, though. The cult had not managed to bind the lesser demon to their service. Anton was sure that he had prevented any contract between them. The fact that the monster had escaped was unfortunate, and partly his fault, but having one more wild demon roaming in the Underdark was not that much of a concern.
The demon had taken the shape of a young woman, and her terrified face came back to him, as he remembered trying to end her. That had been a source of significant confusion.
Kneeling, he opened a heavily reinforced chest to reveal numerous Mana Shards of distilled essence, utterly free of any other influence. There were only two types of beings that could use that type of power without being harmed.
Drawing Eziel from its sheath, he placed the blade's tip on the mana shard, and the light immediately dimmed before the crystal suddenly disintegrated into dust.
It was the stuff meant for Seraphs and the divine. The fact that some demons had found a way to corrupt the power to their own ends was one more reason for Anton to put an end to their depravities and evil.
His sword wasn't just a typical artifact. Its blade had been forged from the soul of a dying angel, Eziel, The Judgement, Arch-Seraph of Light. It was one of the seven holy relics the Lightbringer Order possessed and was granted to Anton upon his anointment as Paladin.
Sometimes, the blade would send him premonitions or guidance in his dreams, but it had become silent as of late. Anton hoped the mana contained in the shards would help with the blade's fugue. The sword had never failed to harm a demon before, but it had prevented him from harming the monster. He had feared that the Cultists had somehow found a way to corrupt the weapon, but it hadn't had any difficulty severing their heads.
As Anton finished dealing with the Mana Shards, he turned to look at the rest of the room. With a wave of his hand, a pulse of light flared from his palm, and the corpses, along with what remained in the room, turned to dust. His work there was done.
He would have to return to the city he hated next, a place infested with corruption and demonologists, in order to hunt for clues and where the Bishop had gone to lick his wounds. Anton didn’t hold much hope on that front, but he would have to remain in the Underdark until the High Cardinal summoned him back into the light of day.
Chapter 10 - Mushroom Conflict
Elania's heart pounded as she tucked herself behind another boulder.
Clack, clack, clack, clack.
Another volley of spears missed their mark, but the fact that they fell so closely around her position meant that despite her efforts to throw the Mushroom Men off, they were still getting closer and had brought even more spears than she thought possible.
[You have gained a level in Athletics!]
She had been running from them for a while. She was fast enough to outpace them for a time, but whenever she stopped, they would catch up, and they were increasing in number!
Elania didn’t want to fight them. It wasn’t only because she was hesitant to seek confrontation, but also the whole thing felt like a misunderstanding. She never meant to step on the poor Elnat! She hadn't even known they weren't wild animals!
She had slowly come to understand the setup in the cavern... at least she thought she did. The Mushroom Men had domesticated the animals there at some point. She didn't doubt that the Elnats and Ralfots were probably their herd animals. Elania hadn't seen any predators in the cave, and the Mushroom man had seemed quite upset when she stepped on the Elnat.
Maybe they were so hostile to her because they had been acquainted with the vicious Bone Demon she had fought. The vast cache of bones she had found in one of the ruined buildings definitely suggested it had munched on more than a few Elnat and Ralfots at some point.
Having caught her breath, she jumped up and set off at a run again. The now-familiar "Glau-Glaa" cry went back and forth behind her.
She had already circled the majority of the cavern. There had been several large exits to other caverns, and two had been blocked off with large fungal growths. She wondered if those had been built or grown by her pursuers.
As she returned toward the stream and the ruined buildings, she drew back and slid to a stop. A Mushroohum swung heavily with his spear, the tip barely missing Elania's face.
[You have gained a level in Dodging!]
A second return swing came back at her without delay. This time, she raised her own spear, and the two wooden shafts collided. The Mushroom Man was larger than her by at least a foot, and she could feel the difference in their size and weight as it pressed down on her.
[You have gained a level in Blocking!]
The weight grew heavier as Elania's opponent gained more leverage, and she felt her crude spear flex perilously in between her hands.
[You have gained a level in Blocking!]
The unpleasant musty odor she had smelled earlier was thick as the Mushroom Man breathed down on her. It seemed like it was going to crush her if her spear broke, and the menacing look of its face had her frantically searching for options.
'I have other skills.'
She'd burnt off her excess power earlier when practicing, but she still had her reserves. It was time to put her rigorous training into practice.
Casting sparks and melting her own hand wasn’t her only option. Focusing on her power had become easier as the skill leveled. It did take a bit of concentration, which was hard when she was being pressed down onto a knee by the fungus. She forced it to work, anyway.
A white aura began to wisp around and off of her, and the pressure lessened. She was gaining physical strength, and the Mushroohum let out a "Glau-Glaa!" when Elania suddenly grabbed his weapon and then she shoved him with ease, sending her large opponent falling backward.
Elania let out a strained breath and released the mana coursing through her. She'd burnt over thirty points of her 'Power' just for that single feat of strength!
[You have gained a level in Mana Manipulation!]
[You have gained a level in Battle Concentration!]
'At least I got a new skill. I wonder if---'
She realized her self-distraction with the [System] had allowed the Mushroohum to start scrambling off the ground. It was still prone, and she could easily stab it with her spear while it was vulnerable.
A fit of anger took hold of her, and she raised her spear to do just that. Hadn’t it chased and cornered her when she obviously didn’t want to fight? Its ugly looks and musty smell, its sheer strangeness called out for her to do just that, but... Wasn't she the invader here?
"Let's stop fighting and be friends."
Unfortunately, the "Glau-Glaa" answer was cut short by a volley of thrown spears, one managing to scrape her shoulder. The others had caught up to her, and she took off in a random direction. 'Right, no mercy for Elnat stompers.'
Fleeing once again, she traced a path around the stream to an area near the cave wall she hadn't explored yet. A few other water sources flowed together, and she realized a small pond was surrounded by various larger growths, although none of them came close to the size of the imposing [Tower-Cap] trees.
Elania found herself looking down at the rocky bank and she decided to go around it since the stone looked damp and possibly slippery. Unfortunately, when she turned to explore another escape route, there were a half dozen Mushroom Men in front of her in a semicircle. All of them let loose one of their spears at the same time.
The only thing that saved her was they had all thrown too accurately, and when she hurled herself to the side, the majority of them flashed through the space she had previously occupied.
[You have gained a level in Dodging!]
'Useful skill--- AH!'
Despite having managed to not be hit, one of the spears tangled up between her legs and robes. Elania tripped, twisting sideways as she fell, and then rolled and bounced down a slope and into the stream with a splash.
It was deeper near the cave wall, several streams had come together to fill a sizable pool, and she soon found out that it had a strong undertow as well when the water suddenly snatched her and pulled her under.
'I can't swim!'
As she thrashed around in the water, she was forced to let go of the spear she had been holding. Several times she painfully smashed into a rock or boulder. Even her [Darkvision] didn't seem to work underwater, as nothing but blackness greeted her.
The impacts with the rocks had knocked out what little breath she had managed to conserve, and the burning in her chest grew, causing her to panic even more.
Temporary relief only came when she suddenly found herself falling through the air amidst a giant roar.
Then she smashed into the shallow pool and rocks below.