Chapter 59: Battle in the Clouds
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The spear rose to meet Chris’ hammer, and Chris saw the spearhead was made of a golden metal that shimmered in the sunlight. Bright blue gathered around the blade and Chris could almost feel the notion of sky in the energy condensed around the gryphon’s weapon. His enemy had a Dao!

Too late to counter with his own Dao his hammer struck the spear, and was swallowed by a vastness that reached out toward him. The hammerhead fell through it, absorbed by the vastness, yet went nowhere, still attached to the haft in his hands. His [Danger Sense] began to activate, first a low whine, rising to a warning screech.

Chris pulled back, yet his hammer seemed to go nowhere. He channeled in a small amount of Suppression and his weapon came free, released from the hold of the gryphon’s Dao. Small lacerations covered the hammer’s surface, nothing major, but enough to see the power the gryphon wielded.

The sudden release made Chris stagger back, not in time to prevent the gryphon’s spear from pinging against the armor of his left shoulder. When the spear head withdrew, there was a tiny crater left in the metal, a bullseye around a ring of crisscrossing abrasions.

The gryphon had struck like a snake, and now it struck again. Chris bashed at the haft of the spear, scoring a hit on the weapon, and knocking the attack off target. Trying to keep his opponent off balance, Chris dashed in, reversing his strike, bringing his hammer toward the gryphon in the other direction.

The creature’s eyes narrowed, then it hopped back, choking up on its spear to shorten its effective length—countering Chris’ attempt to move past it.

Chris would have cursed, if he hadn’t noticed the gryphon was favoring its left shoulder. Where the ballista bolt had struck its left, the chainmail was torn and corroded. He fancied that he could see drips of Slime still caught beneath the skin, burning flesh and feather.

Up until now, Chris hadn’t even realized it, but the gryphon was keeping him to its right side. It had even shortened its reach by keeping its left shoulder away, with the result that it wielded the spear like a rapier.

He had a feeling the gryphon was physically weaker than him, but well-trained, and with a strong Dao. From its armor and weapon, it seemed evident that it was an Enlightened, rather than a wandering monster. Even more evident was that the gryphon was hostile.

Part of him wanted to take advantage of its weakness and strike it down, while another part demanded he only wound it and send it scarpering—non-lethal. After all, the System seemed to want conflict between races, and he really felt in the mood to drop a steaming turd on the System right now. Still, the fact that the gryphon had tried to steal his Tower Seed was not without consequence. That reminded him, he still needed to find it. The damn crystal had to be somewhere in the sea of solid cloud upon which they fought.

While Chris hesitated, the gryphon made his decision for him. It lashed forward like a viper, its wings suddenly flaring. The gryphon’s ribbon-covered wings thrust backward, propelling the bird-lion fusion of a creature forward. The Enlightened’s glowing blue spear broke through his armor, then flowed through skin and muscle beneath.

Chris gasped, more out of expectation than pain. Where the spear had punctured, he felt… absent. He looked down, there wasn’t any blood or Slime or flesh visible at all from the sky-like blue glow that suffused the spear. It was like part of him had just vanished.

The gryphon clacked its beak, eyes displaying triumph despite the language barrier. It pulled back, and as it did, the Dao surrounding its spear faded.

Chris stumbled as sensation returned with the spear’s absence. Even with [Pain Resistance] the wound was excruciating. He stepped back farther to get away from the gryphon as green and red slush flowed out of the wound—blended by the space-breaking powers of the gryphon’s Dao.

He placed his hand to wound, trying to hold himself in as his right arm popped the third health potion and circulated it through him. The healing energies first topped up the mass of his arm, then paused as they encountered blended flesh and blood and Slime. Whatever impediment there was, it ended moments later as the last of the health potion repaired his body, leaving clean, smooth flesh poking out from the hole in his armor. The pain lessened, but an echo of it remained, like an afterimage.

The gryphon stared at Chris warily as he took another step back—clearly confused by the regeneration displayed. Without overflowing mana driving him forward, he wanted to get away from the spear. The pain had been bad, despite [Pain Resistance] numbing its effects.

Chris took the lull to recollect himself and look around. The tower vine had shrunk lower in the brief time they’d been fighting, and clouds on the outskirts of the area were beginning to tatter away, like icebergs voyaging into open ocean. The pause also allowed him to realize his arm was subtly vibrating, spurring him toward an innocuous patch of cloud.

He would wager that the Slime was indicating the presence of the Tower Seed. That was his real goal here. To reclaim the crystal. If the gryphon wanted it, so did he.

Immediately, he began to inch toward it, maintaining a pretense of circling around his foe. The gryphon obliged, trailing its lion-like paws through cloud as it angled its body around. Its eyes flickered between the circle of exposed skin showing from Chris’ armor and his head.

Chris reached the spot, then grabbed his hammer back with both hands, giving the impression of being about to charge. Then, with a shit-eating grin, he crouched suddenly and scooped up the crystal. The Tower Seed sank into his hand without issue, leaving a small tattoo of a sprout behind.

The gryphon screeched and charged forward. Chris frowned. It had seen him absorb the crystal. Didn’t that mean it was over? What did it have to gain?

Either the Enlightened had a similar mana issue to what he’d had, or there was a way of extracting Tower Seeds—and potentially other tattoos—from dead bodies.

Chris grunted his frustration, rising to a stand. He batted the spearhead away, then scrambled in the opposite direction. He didn’t want the gryphon to activate its Dao and catch him off-guard. If it activated its Dao, any attempt to knock the spear aside could be nullified, he didn’t want to risk that.

The gryphon pushed him harder and harder, its spear continually flickering out. Chris countered each time. Ostensibly, the Enlightened was out of mana, meaning it was no longer able to use its Dao.

Without the advantage of the blue energy, he could swear he was a match for the gryphon. Yes, it was better trained, and its spear was likely still capable of damaging his armor, but he almost certainly had it beat in the physical stats department. He could take a hit and potion to heal up if needed, that granted him an advantage.

He charged forward after batting the gryphon’s spear exceptionally wide, when [Danger Sense] blazed to prominence. He would have ignored it—he was expecting to take damage anyway—if not for the crafty gleam in the gryphon’s eyes.

Was the Enlightened baiting him?

He paused his advance as suddenly as he initiated, thinking back. He didn’t have time. The gryphon capitalized on his hesitation and pressed forward. Once again, Chris was on the back foot, but again and again he saw opportunities to strike, places to attack, if only he went on the offensive.

He pushed forward, slamming the spear aside with acute aggression. He began to lunge, then halted as [Danger Sense] flared again. The gryphon recovered slowly and, against his better judgement, Chris took another pace toward his adversary. [Danger Sense] continued to buzz at him. Worse, the gryphon’s shifty look remained.

He drew back, and suddenly the battle turned again. He felt himself continually pressured as he struggled to keep up with the pace of the battle.

But the discrepancies where becoming obvious. The gryphon was sandbagging. Whenever he paused it shifted to the attack, always able to keep him on the back foot, yet with such glaring weaknesses that even he could see them. That seemed… odd.

The enemy Enlightened was obviously trained. Despite being weaker, it continually held the advantage in terms of skill at arms. That was, until Chris began attacking. Yes, he was absolutely being baited. But it didn’t entirely make sense. Did the gryphon still have mana? If so, why wasn’t it pressing its advantage, instead it was entertaining some charade that Chris didn’t entirely understand.

It hadn’t used its Dao for long, which seemed like a warning sign, but then again, its Dao had seemed quite potent. Chris wasn’t sure. But still, the enemy had been so transparent in its openings. He didn’t like it.

Before the gryphon could react, Chris veered away, filling one of the now-empty vials in his arm with Slime, be brought it covertly to the surface of his skin, then grasped it with his left hand, plugging the neck with one thumb.

Hissing, the gryphon closed in, seemingly unaware of the vial.

Chris attacked without delay, and the gryphon fell back, suspicious in its sudden incapability. Chris hurled the vial.

The gryphon’s eyes became panicked for a moment as it saw the airborne vial, filled with green Slime. Blue light flared around a few rings of its chainmail armor and the vial disappeared.

Chris paused his assault. The enemy Enlightened had definitely been sandbagging. But why?

If it had mana, it could probably take him out with a concerted effort, but…

But it was wounded and…

Everything snapped into place.

Chris wasn’t fighting one enemy, he was fighting two. Wounded as it was, the gryphon was unsure if it could beat him. It also didn’t need to. After all, the tower vine was withering and shrinking, now that it was devoid of the Tower Seed that had sat upon its top.

Once the vine sank enough, it would be a death sentence for him.

He’d been baited, with openings that could have been false or could have been real. But the gryphon hadn’t been sandbagging to lure him into a trap. Chris had walked willingly into the trap himself. The gryphon was wasting his time, keeping him occupied.

The clouds all around were breaking apart quicker now. The gryphon was fine, it had wings. But Chris? Chris couldn’t fly.

He heard the gryphon give a soft, rasping hiss as the blue light around its chainmail faded. Slime and crushed glass dripped down, some oozing inside the rings and presumably hitting flesh, fur, or feather beneath.

Chris didn’t rise to the bait this time. He turned heel and dashed for where he’d last seen the tower vine—no longer visible. He was quicker than his avian enemy, he had it beat on stats after all. He’d got what he’d needed, the Tower Seed. He didn’t need to kill himself trying to fight something he didn’t need to. He wouldn’t be a slave to the System; that started with not acting like a slave to his mana—he had no excuses now.

Chris ran away as the gryphon shrieked behind him—half annoyance, half challenge.

Chris didn’t turn, not even when [Danger Sense] suddenly alerted him. He just dodged to one side. The gryphon’s spear passed him by and buried itself in a patch of cloud a small ways beyond where the tower vine had once poked through cloud.

His eyes lingered on the spear for a moment, before flitting away. There were more important things than loot right now.