Chapter 58: Thief
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Chris sprinted forward, muscles straining to reach top speed, before he even got a good glimpse of the intruder. White plumes of feathers crested their head, and as they circled the spiral leaves of the vine, an eagle face was revealed.

The eagle faced creature rose higher and now he saw chainmail draped over its shoulders and two large wings spreading out from behind it, draped with tassels of what looked like shining silk. It held a short spear in one clawed, birdlike talon.

It rose higher, one step, two, before its gaze snapped suddenly toward him. It loosed a raucous screech in his direction, then began hurrying up the tower vine even faster, reaching for the Tower Seed above. A decidedly non-avian set of hindquarters marked its body from waist to toe, covered in tawny skin and lionlike paws. It reminded Chris of a gryphon, except bipedal.

Chris swore and pushed himself faster, veering around and leaping over pitfalls in the cloud by memory—at least no new ones had appeared yet. His load bounced precariously in his hands, but he kept hold.

He could see already that the gryphon would reach the top before him. Not by a large margin, but by enough. It wasn’t flying—maybe its armor weighed it down too much—but the wings looked large, perhaps not enough to gain altitude, but it would be too much to ask to expect them to not allow the gryphon to glide with ease. If it got the Tower Seed, it was game over.

The gryphon kept on climbing leaping from broad leaf to broad leaf, casting glances down toward him.

Chris stared at it, then suddenly stopped running. He slung the ballista off his back and placed it down, with its crystal vat of poison acting like a monopod.

First things first, he cranked it back, using his strength to pull the thick string into place, where it locked against the catch. Next was the ammunition. He manifested his Beastblade in the appropriate position and fired.

The polearm shot toward the gryphon in an arc, before black smoke steamed from its surface. The smoke returned back to Chris’ body, and the Beastblade was gone before it even reached the gryphon. It was a shame too, it had looked to be a perfect shot.

Damn. He needed something that wouldn’t disappear before it reached the gryphon. His eyes went to a patch of cloud, where, shrouded in the white pillowy stuff, he’d laid down his pole momentarily.

He reset the ballista, added the pole and fired. This one went wide by several feet. Still, the gryphon turned its eagle head to watch the projectile sail past. Its head swiveled back to Chris and it clacked its orange beak, before returning its focus to ascending the tower vine.

What now? His only pole was gone. His Beastblade didn’t reach that far. His Beast Soul javelin would have, if it hadn’t been screwed with by the Thaumic Strata, and if he hadn’t used it to piss of a cat and lure it to its death.

What could he use? Inspiration struck. He pulled off his right gauntlet and tugged at his index finger. His finger was already hardening to stone, thanks to Stone Form, and as he pulled on it, more stone was eased free.

Soon he had a stone javelin which he placed into the ballista. The Slime began to revert back to normal as soon as the rocky finger missile left his body, but it would take a little while for that to happen.

He angled the ballista slightly higher, then launched the bolt toward the gryphon. It came close, oh so close, but the damn thing was behind the tower vine’s stalk when the stone projectile hurtled past where it had been only seconds before.

He reset the ballista, then created another finger missile, this time with his middle finger for extra ‘fuck you’ vibes. He didn’t know if gryphons counted the middle finger as an obscene gesture, but it was the thought that counted. He fired. Another miss.

After the third firing, he began to experience issues. Removing Slime from his arm was beginning to impair the efficacy of its functioning. That was making it hard to reset and aim the ballista.

He growled, thinking of what he could do. Then he remembered the aftermath of his fight against Xys. Health potions could restore Slime, right?

He had six potions stored inside the bone of his arm right now. For a moment, he felt a tingle as bone and marrow turned to Slime and ate away at the first stopper of the vial—the glass was fairly resistant to acid. Healing energy rushed through him and he felt his arm bulk out.

The gryphon was nearing the top now, so he only had a few chances left.

Three more resets and firing resulted in misses. He replenished his Slime again with another health potion.

The gryphon was almost at the top, but at that point it would be more exposed than anywhere else.

Rather than rush, Chris lined up his final shot. He’d gotten a pretty good range on the ballista, he knew approximately where the gryphon would end up. He waited. The gryphon stepped onto the final leaf in the spiraling staircase and reached toward the Tower Seed. Its back was toward him. That was good.

Chris fired. Before the finger bolt left the ballista, he knew he’d missed. Not by much, but by enough. And when you were playing for keeps, if you miss by an inch, you might as well miss by a mile. A little to the left, and no hitting what he’d intended to.

The gryphon grabbed the Tower Seed, its wings quivering behind it. It cradled the gem in its talons like a precious egg. Then it stiffened. It spun around, realizing it still had someone shooting at it.

The turn brought it into the finger missile’s trajectory, with moments to spare. The projectile, half reverted to Slime in its flight, splintered and splashed against the gryphon’s chainmail-covered shoulder.

The gryphon was kicked back by the force, cawing in surprise. The spear and Tower Seed slipped from its talons and flew through the air as the gryphon tried to flip its suddenly falling body. The creature managed, and moments later, its wings flared and its descent suddenly halted, pulling into a glide.

The gryphon reached for the Tower Seed too late as it plummeted down, swallowed by a cotton swab of cloud.

Chris picked the ballista up and took his hammer into his right arm—not bothering to replace his gauntlet, no time.

The gryphon circled down, obviously trying to spot the fallen Tower Seed, but frustration was written on its aquiline face, no doubt unable to precisely tell where the crystal had fallen. Chris could empathize, the cloud was difficult to see through in places.

Trusting to his memory, and hoping no new holes had opened up, he sprinted forward. Puffs of cloud were kicked up as he ran forward, dashing around where he believed the pitfalls lay—it helped that there weren’t many of them, so he went a little wider than necessary to compensate for a hazy memory.

The gryphon had landed and now began scrabbling through cloud with its talons. It found its spear first, then screamed angrily, its bright pink worm of a tongue flapping like a pennant within its open beak. It tore at cloud faster and faster, trying to find the fallen Tower Seed before Chris did.

And Chris was on his way. He slowed to lay the ballista down on the tower vine, which had slowly begun to wither and shrink, then sped toward the gryphon.

He summoned his Beastblade, trailing it over the cloud ahead of him, just in case any pitfalls lay ahead of him—he hadn’t walked on this region of cloud before. Nothing blocked his path. He vanished his Beast Soul Weapon and took his Nuctite hammer in both hands.

As the gryphon raised its spear, Chris leapt and brought his weapon down.