Alana crested the hill as an explosion like a skyscraper collapsing rang out over the battlefield. The ground beneath her trembled and her frown deepened. Were they too hasty in only sending fifty troops in pursuit? If the Nemesai had something large prepared for them here…
Had she just walked into a trap…?
But when she looked down, she found something outside of her expectations. Waiting in the valley below was a tree, so tall that Alana couldn’t help but be taken aback. Her gaze followed the trunk straight upward into the sky. The canopy of the tree was pressing up through the clouds, existing at such a height that it seemed like a part of a different world.
Without warning, there was another rumble and Alana’s gaze focused on a different detail. The huge body of Chrysanthemum was blown backward by this towering image. As the bear was thrown backward, the brilliant emerald leaves rustled and swayed with righteous fury.
The tree seemed so real that Alana was confused at first when it flickered and disappeared. Rapidly, there was on the faint memory of that vast tree with thick golden roots dominating Earth’s worst Nemesis. And without the green foliage cover, Alana was able to see a broader view of the battlefield.
The Winged Serpent was dodging stabs of roots while attempting to finish a strange glowing diagram on the ground. Thea and a weird tusk creature howled while running forward with their weapons raised. There was a smoldering corpse covered in emerald fire and on the far side the battlefield.
The Obsidian Duke was covering another body with a thick covering of his distinct obsidian wrapping, which Alana had never heard of before. Chrysanthemum, whose body crashed to the ground, took several seconds to stagger to her feet, looking much the worse for wear.
Standing in the center of them all, of course, was Randidly Ghosthound.
Alana grinned. “Doubletime, boys, or else the fun will be stolen by the Ghosthound.”
“WINGED SERPENT!” Thea shrieked as she twisted to avoid another thrust from Randidly’s infuriating spear. The thing twisted midair, scoring a deep gash across her shoulder. It cut through the armor they had stolen from a convoy out of Zone Seven like it was paper. Not just in technique, but in equipment they were completely outclassed.
Hissing, Thea hopped lightly to the right as the Wildness unleashed a huge horizontal slash toward Randidly and almost hit her in the process. For all that they were on the same side, the Wildness didn’t seem to offer her any warning of his attacks. The best he did was not purposefully aim for her.
Infuriatingly, Randidly seemed much less obstructed by the attack than she had been. He hopped up into the air and tapped his bare feet across the sword as he dashed forward and unleashed some Skill toward the Wildness’ face. A terrible darkness instantly spread over the area, and the air above Randidly seemed to warp as a skeletal figure with ashen bones extended its hands longingly toward the Wildness.
There was a haunting melody that was almost out of earshot, calling the listener toward the void. If you paused to indulge that strange sense of unease, your life would end.
The Wildness roared and twisted his neck to deflect the stab with his tusks. Thea almost wanted to roar in frustration. It wasn’t supposed to happen like this! If they couldn’t get an individual with a connection to Randidly, then Chrysanthemum would never-
“AHHHHHHHH!” The Wildness’ scream confirmed her worst fears; with the weight of that terrible image behind it, Randidly’s stab shattered the tusk and cracked the Wildness’ jaw. The fool stumbled backward spraying blood, likely too shocked by his own failure to do anything but gaze wide-eyed at Randidly’s momentum let him float above the Wildness.
Thea’s mouth thinned into a line. Her body surged into sudden motion as she activated her Combat Intensity Skill and aimed to interpose herself between Randidly and the Wildness. Seeing that the Deep Horror still hadn’t moved, Thea had a sinking feeling in her heart that the Ghosthound was going to remind them all that they were still mortal today.
Randidly raised his spear. Again the image of the phantom formed above them, and this time its empty eyes were locked onto Thea. Instantly, a strange sense of helplessness settled over her. Gritting her teeth, Bestial Fury ripped up from the depths of her soul and eradicated that strange feeling of weakness. But Randidly still thrust his spear downward toward her, maintaining his position of strength.
That’s the difference, Thea thought, strangely dissatisfied. He believes so fucking honestly and completely that he warps the world. With his images, it’s like we are fighting both him and the very air around us. If we had our own images like this… but no. Right now, he’s controlling even the environment.
...how can we fight this…?
Thea’s Desperate Blow cut upward toward Randidly’s thrust even as it drew strength from how overmatched she felt. And it was knocked aside as though it was a plaything. The hands of that greedy specter reached down, aiming for Thea’s heart. But just as all the blood in her body was freezing in fear, Chrysanthemum’s familiar roar cut across the battle, sending an imperceptible tremble through the image.
Although Randidly could do it if he put his mind to it, it wasn’t easy to deal with Chrysanthemum’s bulk, which was forcefully smashed into the image. Unfortunately, Chrysanthemum didn’t come away from this clash unscathed.
Those bones that were riddled with small cracks previously were crushed to powder, causing Chrysanthemum’s roar to echo out again, this time furious. Those two clashes against Randidly had left some gaping holes in Chrysanthemum’s body. So much so that Thea’s heart broke as she gathered herself and considered her partner.
Slowly Chrysanthemum’s body shrunk, the remaining bones shifting around with cracks to form a complete body, this one only about the size of a van. Which was only two thirds its prior size, but that wasn’t the problem. Thea frowned. She had never seen Chrysanthemum do that before.
As she had thought, the time where Chrysanthemum was the most alive was when-
“Finished!” The Winged Serpent yelped, even as a root stabbed brutally up through one of its wings. It hissed and spat out six bolts of frost in quick succession to buy itself some time.
“Fuck! About damn time.” The Obsidian Duke grumbled, immediately seizing Drake’s bound body and rushing toward the portal. Thea nodded sharply and dashed to the side to arrive at the bit of charcoal that had been the Deep Horror. Her hand brushed against its shell and came away flakey with ash.
It seemed that Randidly hadn’t moved because he had to… it was because he was finished.
Gritting her teeth, Thea spun around to see Randidly dashing toward the newly opened portal as well, even as the prior portal finally was allowed to close by his vines.
“Thinking of escaping…? I don’t think so.” Randidly growled. The Obsidian Duke safely made it through the portal with Drake, followed by a squeaking Winged Serpent. Which left her and the Wildness to push through.
Even though she didn’t like it, Thea admitted that Chrysanthemum was the best matchup against Randidly. If she bought time for them-
“Fucking man-child, pleased with your little bit of strength…” A grim voice cut across Thea’s thoughts as a body interposed itself between Randidly and the portal. The Wildness was… steaming. Long clouds of smoke drifted up from his body. After spitting up a mouthful of blood, he bared his gap-toothed grin and raised his blade. “Try a taste of this.”
To Thea’s surprise, Randidly slowed to a stop and frowned at The Wildness. “You… broke your own Nemesis binding? Why? How? Without that, won't you be rejected-”
“But I’ll have enough time to teach a welp like you a lesson,” The Wildness grunted. His gaze went to Thea and he subtly jerked his chin. Thea nodded and dashed past him. “You think you are the only one who can create something from nothing? I’ll show you the pride of one who killed a whole world to become a Nemesis. Our images aren’t nonexistent. We simply aren’t allowed to grace your world with their majesty-”
“I won’t let you go that easily,” Randidly thundered, his burning emerald eyes shifting to Thea. The ground in front of her erupted in bursts of emerald fire. Gritting her teeth, she could only hope for the best and plunge through the thick flames.
It was not for nothing that the Deep Horror had been reduced to ash by this vivid fire, but her brief exposure only left Thea with some superficial burns. She pushed forward, crossing the final few steps to arrive in front of the portal. Vines were already rising to block her way and snaking up to grab her ankles with malicious precision.
Thea’s eyes narrowed and she began to cut her way forward.
Behind her, the sky rumbled and the Wildness spoke. “One Cut, One Sacrifice.”
A peal of thunder rang out as a bolt of vivid red lightning struck downward toward their battlefield. It hit the ground with a dull roar, and Thea was surprised to see the vines that had been reaching toward her slow and pause in their attacks.
Despite herself, she spared a glance over her shoulder to see what had happened. In that brief flash, she saw the Deepness was raising his blade once more, but what grabbed her eyes was Randidly. That charcoal body armor he wore had been split open and there was a deep wound across his chest.
There was shock in his eyes too, but then his face split into a grin. “Ha. Is this all an Upper Cohort can manage?”
“Good armor,” The Wildness said grudgingly, but then he hissed as Randidly blurred into motion and appeared behind him. His blade swung around but Randidly was gone, this time borrowing the strike’s momentum and appearing right next to Thea. His spear was already halfway toward her calf.
Fucking brutal, Thea thought with a fair bit of respect. But her ax took on a life of its own as it twisted upward in a Reaping Cut. The blow smashed into that fucking metallic arm of Randidly’s, even as he savaged her calf with a thrust as fast and poisonous as a viper bite. She stumbled, but the telltale sparkle of a determined spectral fire burned along the cut she had just made.
There was a flash of relief in her chest. It will have to be enough. Spectral Detonation.
The fire exploded, sending Thea sprawling backward toward the portal. Again vines rose like hungry snakes from the ground to snap at her, but her ax cut sideways through them and opened a path. Behind her, she heard Randidly’s furious hiss but the Wildness had caught up with Randidly again and the Ghosthound had to choose between protecting himself and stopping Thea’s crazed dash.
He chose self-preservation.
“One Cut, One Sacrifice-”
“Spear Advances, Ash Trails.”
Thea tumbled through the portal and sprung immediately to her feet. Her leg was out of commission, but she balanced expertly on the other foot. The first thing she did was spin and bring the pommel of her ax against the Winged Serpent temple like a hammer. The thing yelped and collapsed, knocked out. Then she brought another Reaping Cut down on the delicately arrange teleportation array, shattering it.
The portal flickered, then rapidly began to fade.
To Thea’s relief, Randidly was too preoccupied by the Wildness to stop it.