Helen rushed forward, activating her Tides of Blood Domain. Even as the energies exploded outward and swirled around the Squad members in front of her, she felt someone in the back of the group unleash blasts of water into her Domain. Very concentrated and accurate blasts of water.
Very quickly, she could feel resistance in the usual rotation of the Domain’s currents; it seemed this individual was pretty familiar with how liquid moved. And also they had paid attention to the way that she constructed her Domain to restrict all her enemies within the area. Not only Randidly, but it seemed that Helen herself was now worthy of plotting against.
For whatever reason, Helen found this fact immensely satisfying. Even as her Domain seemed to stutter and slow to a sluggish trickle, that glow of happiness suffused her chest.
But Helen wasn’t worried. In fact, she felt a surge of excitement in her heart. The man who had foolishly attacked Randidly had shifted the tone of this entire battle. Whereas Randidly was keeping his cool before, now that tightly held control was starting to loosen. His curt gesture to Helen conveyed his thirst for violence.
It’s time to run wild, Helen thought with a grin. Like a puppet master before a show, Helen’s thoughts traced the lines of power that controlled her Domain. The lines of power spun. She felt the resistance from the Classer at the back and could only smile like a shark. Good. Otherwise this wouldn’t be any fun.
After cutting down the man who had attacked him, Randidly had remained still. So Helen unleashed another blast of her Domain, one so full of power that the Tides of Blood covered the entirety of the arena and touched the edge of the audience. Immediately Helen felt resistance exploding outward from the VIP box, but Helen’s grin just widened.
If you dare test us, isn’t it fair that we do the same?
This Domain was animated by different principles than the prior one that Helen had used. One of the earliest tricks that Randidly taught Helen in her training was that a Skill that was predictable, no matter how powerful it was, would eventually be used against you. Truthfully, this was almost universally known. But most people accepted that fact and just prepared for the counter.
Randidly’s style was different.
No, Randidly made his hay on being unpredictable. Because he had been indelibly shaped by Azriel, who would memorize and counter a move after seeing it only a single time. So Randidly had grown to be very aware of the sliders he could adjust in his attacks to keep the enemy guessing. Timing, power, angle, initiating motion… all of them were toyed with. And with Randidly’s ridiculously high Control, he had become almost impossible to predict.
It got to the point that the more Helen tried to understand Randidly’s tells, the more he would be able to trick her by adjusting them. In fact, it was much safer to just rely on instincts in fights against Randidly.
That was the trouble of fighting Randidly Ghosthound. Even while he was clashing against you with power, his mind was memorizing your responses, seeking patterns that he could exploit. With a monstrous amount of Control, the flow of a battle would eventually turn in his direction.
So Helen needed to have her fun before he moved.
Helen released a relieved sigh as she spiraled her currents around in the opposite direction than she had been pushing them previously, but also with an inwardly curving series of streams rather than an outwardly curving series of streams. Energy was now being funneled to a tightly packed ball in the center, whereas it had previously reflected away all attempts to penetrate more deeply.
Randidly would notice the trick in it immediately, but Helen expected these fools were a bit less sensitive than Randidly was.
As she arrived at the group of Classers, they surged into motion. Even with the boost from the Domain, Helen had to be cautious against these foes. Although it hurt her to admit it, they were individually more powerful than she was. She had gained a significant amount of her strength back, but it wasn’t enough to overcome this difference in time spent training.
Even as she condensed her harpoon and scaling knife, Helen settled into a defensive posture. Two swords slashed toward her position as the vanguard moved forward, but she smashed them aside with a wave of force from her Tides of Blood Domain. With a quick step, she managed to slip through their blockade…
...and found herself surrounded. They had been waiting for her to do exactly this. Already the long-range attackers had moved several steps backward. Two archers drew back their bows and loosed arrows at her legs, hoping to strip away her mobility. The Classer who was shooting off blasts of water fired a dozen key blasts at once, correctly hitting the important points to slow Helen’s influence in the surrounding area.
That arrangement would have been perfect to resist her currents, had they been outwardly aiming and pushing away outside forces. But as it was, Helen borrowed the strength of those water blasts and brought them rapidly to the center of her Domain to feed her ball of force.
Still, this level of danger wasn’t enough to corner her. With her knife she cut the arrows out of the air, stepping quickly up toward the archers and thrusting forward with her harpoon.
The swordswoman cut at Helen’s back again, but a flick of her harpoon shaft flung some of her chains up into the path of the blow, dispersing enough of the power that when it struck Helen’s back, it didn’t pierce through her leather armor.
It just hurts like a bitch, Helen thought sourly.
One archer scrambled backward, but the other one dropped his bow and flicked his fingers, sending three needles shooting toward Helen’s wrist.
Clicking her tongue, Helen brought that borrowed energy from her Domain and smashed it directly down on the back of the water mage who seemed to have understood that he had made a mistake. Yelping, he was knocked helplessly forward and crashed into the back of a spearman who was about to strike at Helen.
With a sidestep, Helen avoided the needles and sneered as they stabbed into the hapless spearman. Don’t you dare try and bring such shallow techniques to someone who grew up on Tellus…
But she immediately had to block a slash from the other swordsman with her harpoon. Gritting her teeth, Helen let herself be shoved back into the middle of the circle of Squaders. Even now, she heard another man barking orders, sending groups forward to engage Randidly.
Yet Helen could sense that he still hadn’t moved, so it was time to up her tempo. Maw of the Hellfin.
A huge shadow appeared in her crimson Domain, opening and shutting its wide jaws on the back of the archer who had retreated and been about to fire another arrow. The creature ripped into the man’s right arm, causing him to scream and release the arrow haphazardly. The shaft flashed past, skittering off the ground.
Unfortunately, the Squad around her were too well trained to react to the sound of their ally’s suffering; truly, these were hardened warriors. But they did switch to an aggressive stance, which meant that the swordswoman moved a step too quickly toward Helen.
Before another individual could shift to cover the swordswoman, Helen thrust her harpoon forward. Decimate.
Blood covered energy gathered around the strike and empowered it. Although the sword was able to score a glancing blow on the harpoon, it wasn’t enough to block it entirely. The strike slid into the swordswoman’s belly, the wickedly curved hook ripping through her intestines.
Helen grimaced despite herself. If a healer doesn’t get to that quickly, you are going to die. And it will be fucking horrible.
Unfortunately, the other Squaders moved more quickly than Helen would have guessed, even as her Domain tugged at them. An ax cracked into her shoulder and made her stumble forward. To warriors like this, that was more than enough of a chance. A blast of heat singled a fire Skill had passed a bit too close for comfort as well. Helen swung around, adjusting her balance.
Two more individuals wielding spears stepped forward and thrust toward Helen’s sides. With ripping motion, Helen attempted to yank her harpoon out of the swordswoman’s stomach. But as Helen looked, it seemed like a strange liquid copper had bubbled out of her wound, holding the harpoon in her body.
Lightning fast, Helen released her Fate and recondensed it, feeling a blast of mental wariness to control it so quickly. But it allowed Helen to parry one of the spear thrusts and knock it into the other rather uninspired attack.
Spinning around, Helen barely avoided another volley of needles from the pseudo-archer, who now produced several daggers and rushed toward her. But what she saw behind her gave her pause. The Swordswoman was still standing there, now wreathed in molten copper. As Helen watched, a conical helmet formed, leaving a small slit for vision.
The slit began to glow red.
But Helen couldn’t puzzle over this for long. Strikes rained down toward her from every direction, forcing her to dance to the side. Several long scrapes on her arms marked how elusive she really was, but Helen felt her mood dip.
These people are too strong to play like this for long.
Helen did not hold back and slipped along the lines of attacks and slashed at several lightly armored individuals with her scaling knife. The wounds might not be deep, but they would bleed heavily.
As they attempted to surround Helen, her attacks became increasingly violent. Every other attack was a Decimate, which consumed a lot of her Stamina but rapidly led to the other side pausing before they stepped into her range.
It was possible to withstand her normal attacks, but the Decimates continued to keep them on their toes.
The battle should have begun to shift toward Helen as she made use of the energy she had gathered with her Domain, but actually the opposite began to happen. Most troublesome of all, all those who Helen had wounded soon were standing, covered in that same liquid copper armor. Copper weapons flowed out of their hands, and they moved with renewed vigor to cut her down. The copper-covered warriors seemed to attack in the same patterns, but the moved more quickly than they had previously.
Was this a shared Skill they all had, because-
Helen’s harpoon smashed into the shoulder of one of the armored copper zealots. Unfortunately, the tip left a deep scratch but didn’t pierce through. Slowly, the flaw in the armor healed. Within ten seconds, it was like she had done nothing at all. More and more strikes rained down around her, and Helen stretched her Domain to the limit to avoid the worst of it.
If it continued like this-
Like a hand passing through a cobweb, Helen’s Domain was blown away. A strange wind howled, shaking the air. Everyone froze and turned their gaze upward. It was demanded. Instinct took over.
Towering over them all was a tree that stretched upward through the sky. Its branches wound up rough the clouds, holding them aloft. Beyond that was space, where the twisting tendrils extended infinitely, so far beyond the edge of an individual’s vision that it seemed endless.
The deep brown of the bark was so old that Helen’s mouth dried as she looked upward at it. The weight of time’s passage lay heavy over the air. For those without a high level of Strength, even breathing was difficult before this tree. The emerald leaves rustled, the noise clearly carrying to her ear even though the foliage appeared to be kilometers away. It was like hearing the breath of a different world.
As the tree slowly grew more vivid and defined, the surrounding world dimmed. The universe groaned as it was forced to revolve around the tree. Sun and moon spun slowly, obediently orbiting it. Warm, fire red light on its one hand, cool blue silver on the other. Between it, the tree acted as the fulcrum for the warping of space.
And across the whole of the tree, small spinning lines of gold-covered every inch of it. From a distance, it simply appeared that the tree had been liberally dosed with golden glitter. But as one examined the tree with more focus, suddenly it was clear that the strange geass of the tree seemed to flow through these letterings.
What truths those letters conveyed were then born out into reality. Such was the tree’s power.
So it is written, so it shall be.
“If it’s come to this…” Randidly said easily, raising his hand and looking at his fingers. His voice was that breath of a distant world, seeming to boom with force while simultaneously being whispered to all who witnessed this phenomenon. “Then let’s no longer hold back.”
Around her, the powerful Squads began to stir as they fought off the passive influence of the tree. But Randidly’s gaze shifted down toward the body of Eli, who continued to bleed onto the cold stone ground. Randidly grinned. “Interesting; that Skill improves the more damage you’ve taken, doesn’t it? A support Skill to provide copper armor to your allies… But… is that flimsy barrier really enough?”
Above the tree there was suddenly a Crown. It was simple and austere, a woven thing of bone and metal and darkness. The air shifted and the writing across the tree shifted and rewrote itself. The tree demanded fealty.
This time when the leaves rustled, it sounded like a dull roar. And all who witnessed that Crown began to tremble and suffer.