The Beast could sense the predators ahead at the mouth of the winding tunnel. The wounded, half-dead women it passed were no threat. The Beast wanted nothing more than to test itself against the best predators. To prove itself the stronger.
Sitting backseat to the thing driving his body, Hal understood that this was a part of him. Some dark reflection of who he was. It wasn’t a possession.
It was a coup.
He knew, too, that the hole he found himself in wasn’t real. It was a mental construct of some sort, likely the Beast’s. Simple, yet effective. There were no bars the twenty or so feet above him. And at all times Hal could tap into his body’s senses.
The only thing that he could not do, was control himself. But he did have ringside seats. Small concessions, Hal thought bitterly.
Bounding through the caverns, the Beast emerged from a bend and barreled straight into the waiting Shadow Predator.
The creature’s surprise was complete when it saw the red-glowing eyes and the way the red-and-blue Beastborne mana rolled off the Beast’s frame. This was not the prey it thought it had cornered.
This was no prey at all.
With no regard to tactics, the Beast whipped the Goblinbane around and down into the Shadow Predator. The Essence of Shadow that the Beast was channeling changed wholly to Aberration. The blade’s edge sprouted serrated teeth like a shark’s and bit deeply into the Shadow Predator.
It looked like a larger version of the Shadow Crawlers that they first ran into in the Coffin District. Except this beast was larger, nearly dominating what space was left in the tunnel. Like the Shadow Crawlers, the Shadow Predator had a similar slab of engraved stone where its face should have been. Along with the shadowy half-corporeal body, it looked like the mean older brother of the Shadow Crawlers.
The Beast placed two hands on the blade. With strength Hal knew his body didn’t normally possess, the Beast cleaved the Shadow Predator into two halves. The edges of its shadowy form wilted and curled in upon itself, more material than it should be.
Gone too were the prompts.
Thick inky-black and red-veined tendrils whipped off the Beast and sank into what was left of the Shadow Predator. A feeling of utter superiority flooded through the Beast. Every second the tendrils remained into the still-alive creature, it withdrew more of the creature’s Essence. Killing it in the most torturous way imaginable.
Everything that made the creature what it was, siphoned off to empower its killer.
Unable to see the prompts, Hal searched for some way to see if he was going to die. The Beast hardly cared if its body took damage, though that could be due to its superiority complex. After more effort than it should have taken, Hal was able to bring up his HUD.
His Strain was climbing. As he expected. The bar was already filled past his maximum of 30 Strain. It immediately began ticking up again, this time filled with a deep umber color that overlaid the already filled bar.
Four Shadow Crawlers appeared in the entrance, flanking the mouth of the tunnel. The Beast rushed out with the Goblinbane weaving a deadly dance and threw aside the withered, insubstantial remains of the Shadow Predator as it went.
The creatures fell back at the sudden assault. Hal could hear their confused jeering, calling him “Failure,” and “Reject.” If the Beast could hear them, he paid them no mind.
Gleaming teeth bit down on one shadowy creature, two needle-tipped tentacles speared a pair of Shadow Crawlers and the spinning flash of Drill Branch gored the final Shadow Crawler.
The Beast tore through them. Ripped them to shreds and those that weren’t lucky enough to die almost immediately had their Essence siphoned away.
As Hal’s Strain grew, so too did the Beast’s boldness.
Out from the wide mudflats that spread out between the tunnel and the distant gleaming lake – that Hal realized he shouldn’t be able to see – more and more Shadow Crawlers began to emerge.
Whether they sensed his injured companions or they were trailing Hal, it didn’t matter anymore. The Beast rushed into them, took them two or three at a time. Its vicious barbed tentacles, as cruel and effective as any blade of steel, gouged horrible rents in their shadowy flesh.
But the creatures were not entirely unthinking beasts. They understood that a few of them might die. But that only left more for the survivors to feed on. The Shadow Crawlers began to gang up on him and surround the Beast.
For every creature that was slain, two more stepped forward to fill its place.
Hal felt an odd ambivalence at that moment. He didn’t want the Beast to die – because that meant he would die – but neither did he want it to come out the victor.
Suddenly, Hal’s Strain dropped dramatically. It was steadily climbing to 45 and in the blink of an eye, it dropped to 30. The umber bar that had nearly refilled half of his already maxed Strain vanished.
Things were dire indeed if the Beast was using its newly unlocked Diffusion ability to trade built-up Strain for greater power. It meant the Beast wasn’t quite as unthinking as Hal hoped. It understood the forces arrayed against it and reacted accordingly.
That didn’t bode well for Hal.
The Beast called forth Drill Branch and rather than using it to attack the creature in front of it, the Beast altered the spell.
The spiraling branches formed a protective spinning barrier around the Beast. The long twisting branches sprouted curved thorns as long as Hal’s forearm. And as the Beast began to dash into the throng of gathered Shadow Crawlers, the Drill Branch spell became a gruesome blender.
Shadowy limbs were severed and went flying. Any creature too slow to get out of the way of the crazed Beast was shredded apart in seconds.
All it took was a single thorn to nick a creature. That wicked curved point drew the creature in ever-so-slightly. Then the next thorn struck, each one ripping and dragging the Shadow Crawlers to their demise.
Hal watched in amazement as the Beast wielded his limited repertoire of Beast Magic with unsurpassed skill. He altered spells on the fly – something Hal didn’t know he could do – and in doing so constantly kept the overwhelming enemy on the defensive.
For much longer than was wise, Hal studied the way the Beast attacked. While it may have been foolish, he learned more than he could have ever thought possible. The Beast switched its Essences on the fly, utilizing Splice in a way Hal never thought.
While he could only utilize two Essences at the same time, the Beast didn’t mix them as Hal did. It used Aberration Essence on its attacks – an apparent weakness of Shadow – and used Shadow Essence to surround its body. At times, it swapped to Treant Essence. His skin hardened to steely bark moments before shadowy claws attacked.
Blows that should have crippled him, were instead shrugged off as minor injuries. And, looking at his HP, Hal agreed. Whenever the Beast swapped to Treant Essence, his HP bar became outlined in a spiky bark texture that gave off a faint green glow.
All too soon, there were no enemies for the Beast to vent its frustrations on. Dead bodies encircled the creature that had usurped control over Hal’s body. One by one they began to fade away in a puff of oily smoke.
Hal’s greatest fear was realized then. The Beast needed to sate its bloodlust and with no obvious enemies around, it turned back to the tunnels.
Only then, did Hal attempt to reign in the Beast’s control with all of his willpower. It was like trying to put a leash on a grizzly bear. No matter what Hal did, the Beast acted like he didn’t even exist.
For all he knew, it wasn’t even aware of him.
He wasn’t sure if the Beast could kill them and he didn’t want to find out. The results, no matter which way the fight went, would be devastating.
There would be no winners.
Hal tried to use the party communication but nothing happened. His fear redoubled when, through the Beast’s red-glowing eyes, he saw Ashera tending both Mira and Elora.
It wasn’t much of a relief to see Mira’s eyes open and the weakened elf getting to her feet.
Ashera had pulled the pair onto her side of the breach. The Mature Wortlings stood around, as useless as any other houseplant. The Beast paused a moment to regard Noth up above and just inside the broken entrance to the hall.
There was no golden tether between her and Hal anymore. The Reaper writhed in the air, pale hands clasped to the sides of her head as if a horrible sound assaulted her.
He reached out with Dominate, already knowing it would be fruitless, and tried to cast it on himself. With no hands to invoke the magic, nothing happened.
However, he felt a faint tremor. A tenuous thread that either the Beast overlooked or was incapable of controlling. While the two Founder Sigils Hal found may have remained under Hal’s control, without the use of his body they were worthless.
All except one. The Mature Wortlings were still dominated. Hal could feel them in the back of his mind. He was so caught up in his fear and awe over everything that he nearly forgot about them.
With a mental command, one of the wortlings twitched an arm. The beginning of a plan came to him then. But he needed time to pull it off. With the mudflats behind him, the wortlings could technically Root. At least he hoped. And, with them anchored, he could force them to restrain the Beast while they continually regenerated their HP.
It was a long shot. If Hal played his hand too soon, the Beast would spot the movement and cut them down. Though the remaining four had considerable HP, he doubted they stood much of a chance. Not against the Beast’s command of his magic.
Noth, can you hear me? Hal reached out to the writhing Reaper. Please say you can.
The Beast disregarded the Reaper and moved toward Ashera. Hal wasn’t surprised that Ashera knew something was wrong. She placed a hand up and with the other, drew a series of symbols that left a faint purple trace of light in the air.
A wall of lilac energy sprang up between the Beast and Hal’s friends. “Hal, if you’re still in there, I need you to fight this.” She swallowed hard past the lump in her throat. “Please, fight this. We are not your enemies. I do not want to hurt you.” The way her voice cracked tore at Hal’s heart.
Mira and Elora were, understandably, confused by what was going on.
It hurts, was all the Reaper replied.
The Beast pressed one bloodied hand to the barrier, testing it like a curious animal. Hal turned away from the display. He focused on Noth, on their connection.
As he imagined the golden tether, it began to form once more. Only, this time it was thin and pale. Like moonlight, with only the faintest yellow tinge.
Don’t give up on me, Nothricient. I need you.
He had no illusions that the Beast would eventually tear through Ashera’s barrier.
The Sin Keeper was buying him time. Avoiding the inevitable fight as long as she could. He silently thanked her as he bent all his will away from the Beast and to the tether to the Reaper.
I can’t help you, she said. I am not meant to be on the material plane. Sever the tether and let me be consumed! The Reaper flailed in the air, stretching the thin tether to its breaking point as she struggled to get away, consumed by pain.
Hal poured every ounce of his willpower into that nascent tether. It thickened but retained its glistening moonlit pallor. He pulled on it with all his might as if he were lassoing the moon itself.
It hurt him to see the normally imperious and stoic Reaper in so much agony. To think that he caused it. Another weight for his already-pressed shoulders. But he would not let her die. If severing the tether would have saved her, if it hadn’t seemed like it would end her existence, he would have done it in a heartbeat.
He would have found another way to save his friends from the Beast. From the darkest part of himself.
As soon as the tether solidified, the Reaper came to her senses. She ceased her flailing and calmed immediately, floating down behind the Beast.
Thank you, Hal, she said more sincere than he ever heard her before.
Don’t thank me yet, Hal said, I need you to do something for me. And it’s not going to be easy.
Hal turned his attention back to the Beast. Like a rabid, caged animal, he was throwing everything Hal had at the barrier. And it was working. Ashera’s face was flushed with exertion and glistened with sweat. The barrier itself seemed thin and ready to break.
Something Hal began to realize was that on his own, he was relatively weak. He wasn’t the smartest, the bravest, nor the strongest. Once, he would have rejected the notion that he wasn’t. Would have blustered like any other person about his accomplishments or his intentions.
He understood the truth then, shoved into a deep pit within his own mind. Unable to get out. On his own, he was weak.
But he wasn’t alone.
The bonds with his companions, his friends, made him strong. Together they were greater than the sum of their parts. He held to that faith. He may not have stood a chance against the Beast on his own. But together?
He almost pitied the Beast.
Now, Hal said, tugging with all his soul at the tether between Hal and the Reaper.
The effect was immediate. The Beast swung a bone-spiked tentacle at the barrier, only to have it pass harmlessly through. Ashera flinched and shut her eyes but to her immense credit, she did not stop the spell.
Ashera, Vorax, Elora, and even Mira looked up with awe as the Beast was as insubstantial as mist. Noth’s black greaves touched down to the floor behind it. And for the first time, everybody witnessed her terrible glory as she spread her raven-black wings as wide as the hall would allow and brandished her scythe.
The tether strained, but Hal kept it together as Noth retreated through the breach and into the tunnel beyond. Unable to resist the pull and with no corporeal body to hold onto anything, the Beast was dragged away kicking and wailing wordlessly.