“That’s… not a Skill.” Rose said slowly, looking towards the strange carving that stood above the Dintan city, whose walls were now marred by its people’s blood. Drake continued to scratch his face, desperate to get rid of the dried vomit. “That’s… pure force of lungs.”
There was a laugh from the ground in front of them, and Drake looked down to see that although there was a large hole in her right chest, piercing her lung, Gemma/Zith still clung to life, her eyes bright and strangely happy.
Walking forward, Ace frowned and made a shooing motion towards her. “Your attempt at villainous timing is admirable, if only for its lack of understanding of true villainous arts. Please just breathe your last.”
“I have to thank you all…” The dying woman said, and then she began to cough, her chest wracked by spasms, so she curled up like a frying strip on the ground, rocking back and forth.
“She’s not going to say for freeing her,” Ace remarked professionally, shaking his head sadly. “Her twist is embarrassingly straightforward, I’m betting. She will say something like-”
“Because you have given me the greatest pleasure I can currently imagine!” Gemma said, forcibly suppressing her cough, almost as if she was threatened by Ace moving to steal her thunder. The dying woman’s eyes were bright and feverish, her gaze locked onto Alana. “Seeing the freak who murdered my beloved Rhaidon waste away, warped by the passage of time-”
An arrow cut her off, taking her in the forehead. She leaned back and collapsed, dead.
Annie made a pleased noise. “Wow, I didn’t expect a Level from a small fry like that. 49 now. How much of a grind is it up to 50, Alana?”
“It’s gonna be a bitch, especially after we leave this place,” Alana grunted, frowning towards the city, where the rumblings were growing louder. Then she turned and glanced behind her, where the Death Cultists stood. Her eyes narrowed, but she turned forward again, and most of the rest of the group followed her lead. They all moved, their strong melee fighters near the city, ready to meet whatever threat was heading their way.
“The Ghosthound hasn’t responded to the party chat in a while,” Thea whispered, the strange, spooky song of the beast perhaps getting to her. “Do you think-”
“He’s still in the party, however,” Rose said, giving Thea a sharp glance.
The group fell silent, just listening. Drake continued to stubbornly scratch for the vomit. The rumblings were nearer to them now, so much so that he could feel the tremors through his bone greaves. His tail flicked back and forth, an instinctive display of his growing anxiety.
They did not have long to wait. As the noise in front of them grew almost deafening, the gate in front of them was blasted open, and a monster walked out of the opening. Somehow, it managed to both throw off an air of regal importance, and of revolting decay.
The first thing Drake noticed was its huge, golden antlers. A 14-point, by the world before the System’s estimate, and these antlers were intricate and perfectly mirrored as if they had been sculpted, rather than grown naturally. Such was the size of the rack that a man could comfortably sit between the curving golden horns, as long as he avoided the dangerously sharp points.
It mostly had the body of a stag, with soft, white fur that across most of its body seemed incredibly soft. Next, Drake’s gaze locked onto the thing’s eyes, glowing a dull, deep red, like dried blood and rust.
As it walked further forward, Thea gasped. “That…. That’s the Wild Rider’s Soul-bonded animal!”
But Drake was scowling now, because the few steps it had taken forward past the rising dust from the destroyed gate revealed grey and withered pillars of flesh that appeared to be sewn onto its back, and were being dragged behind it, on the ground. At the site of the attachment, the flesh was red, and green ichor leaked out, staining the hide around the connection a strange brown-yellow as if this had been going on for some time, and the leaking fluid was becoming increasingly poisonous.
Next, to the point of connection, there was a bulbous mound, as if a cancerous growth had resulted from the combination, or as though the strange individual who had created this thing had too much extra flesh, and just wrapped it up in an awkward ball and placed it on the thing’s back.
It brayed again, and Drake could see how it had to start as a roar, and then worked up to its clarion call song, as if this is how the stag usually spoke, but a great wariness now suffused its body, and it had to struggle to get there. Finally, its chest began to vibrate too powerfully with the noise, and the black stitching began to spurt red and green fluid, and the monster began to cough, unable to withstand the strain.
“Did it always look like that?” Annie asked solemnly.
Thea shook her head slowly, tightening her grip on her hammer.
Alana opened her mouth to speak, but before she could say anything, Rose spun around. “Death Cultists are using a spell, targetting this Frankenstein!”
“Frankenstein is the doctor,” Clarissa retorted, more out of habit than anything else, but she looked too, lightning dancing across her fingers.
As Drake watched, about a dozen of the surrounding Death Cultists swayed, and then fell, and a strange glob of crackling crimson energy ripped forward, aiming for the monster. Alana seemed torn, but Drake knew he wasn’t getting anywhere near that thing. The group watched as the ball rocketed forward and smashed into the monster, sending it staggering back two steps.
“Well fine, let’s kill it before we kill them,” Alana grunted, producing her spear once more, rushing forward. Clarissa raised her hand with a flourish, and a Lightning Bolt careened forward towards the weakened creature.
However, instead of striking it in the chest, the bolt changed direction at the last second, twitching up towards the golden antlers. After the bolt struck the antlers, it discharged, seemingly harmless, twisting Clarissa’s face into a frown.
“Some sort of spell target changing… and a pretty powerful null magic from its antlers,” Rose reported, frowning down at her notes. Drake felt a sinking feeling in his stomach. If they couldn’t damage it with spells… guess it was time for the melee users to shine. But approaching a monster like this…
Alana did so without a care, her spear stabbing towards the stag’s chest. With a surprising display of deftness, the stag sidestepped and swung its head, those incredibly sharp antler points aiming for Alana’s stomach. Without much effort, she hopped backward, but lowered her stance and looked at the stag with a more focused attention.
At that point, Lucifer had used his knife to teleport behind it and chopped down towards the strange pillars of grey flesh that came from its back. To everyone’s surprise, the stag didn’t appear to notice the attack until it had already hit, and then just turned to regard Lucifer in surprise.
What was perhaps the strangest was that Lucifer, with his huge swords, only penetrated a small amount into the flesh, about an inch, before he was stopped by the thick, stringy material.
Casually, the stag raised its head, and an energy filled the air, flowing into its antlers, concentrating into a grey ball. Everyone narrowed their eyes, while Rose began to scribble furiously. After a half second, her eyes widened, and she forced herself to stop writing so she could yell, “Do NOT let that touch you! It’s-”
The grey ball released a beam that scythed outward, sliding towards Lucifer. As if it was the most natural thing in the world, he sidestepped the beam and hopped back through his portal and appeared before them once more, and then he rapidly began to pinch the portal closed.
Before he had left, however, the beam had struck his sword and drew a thin line across it. As he was closing the portal, Drake watched with wide eyes as his sword, starting along that thin line the metal, turned a darker grey, then a brown, then slowly red and disintegrated to dust.
Realizing the change that was happening, Lucifer dropped the weapon. The line was relatively near the tip of the sword, but the changes continued down most of the length of the blade until there were only 10 centimeters or so of blade remaining, and that was red and rust-eaten. Lucifer frowned at the blade, almost seeming to be more upset he lost his sword, than in the manner of its destruction.
“That’s a blast of concentrated time. It’s hard to tell easily how much time passes when that hits you but-” Rose thought about it, then repeated what she said earlier. “Do not let it hit you.”
Right at that moment, two more red balls struck the stag, sending it staggering, dispersing another grey ball of energy that was starting to form. But as he watched what was happening, Drake forgot all about the dried vomit on the inside of his helmet. Instead, he lowered his hands and gripped his sword, sweating for two reasons.
The first was that his armor was basically useless against this stag that struck with time. The second…
“Guys,” Drake said slowly, “...I think those red balls aren’t…. They are healing it.”
The divvet in the grey and withered flesh pillar was gone, healed over cleanly. And no longer was the flesh grey, but now firm, and pearlescent, almost, strange colors reflected from its fur. Ponderously, those pillars of flesh raised themselves, seeming to flex experimentally.
“Oh shit,” Rose whispered, her eyes widening. “How could I… yes it's healing it, filling it with life force, from somewhere.”
Drake glanced back towards the Death Cultists. Now, over half of them were on the ground, unmoving, while the Grey Death Cultist, a wide smile on its face, was looking forward towards them.
“Yes, we finally found you…” The Grey Death Cultist said, pausing in its ritual to raise its hand towards the stag. “Our Ivory Queen… please, open your eyes! Your servants are here to give you our very lives!”
A tremor ran through the stag. Then, strangely, the cancerous growth began to twitch. Drake’s eyes widened because it quickly became clear that it was a misshapen, squashed head. It trembled again, and folds of flesh parted, revealing a mouth with yellowed and broken teeth. Immediately, there was a slow trickle of bile that came outward, flowing slowly over the tongue and across the teeth.
In a strange twist, Drake felt quite a bit of empathy for the strange monster, forced to deal with vomit for the rest of this fight. But then more folds parted, revealing beady eyes, one of black and one of silver, red-rimmed with hatred. Then they rolled around, staring to the sky.
Slowly, those ivory pillars raised themselves farther, revealing them to be the sinewy and massive wings of the Death Cultists, made of corded muscle that could be spread out thinly for flight. But unlike the other Death Cultists, these wings were each full 20 meters long, stretching almost improbably far outwards, covering the Raid Party in their long shadow.