Although the demon monster was the largest threat, it was also only part of the problem. Annie’s role was not one of glory, but one of intelligence. Which was somewhat disappointing, for now, but Annie assured herself that SOME sort of rogue opponent would rear its ugly head, and she would have a 1 v 1 duel with it.
Probably, they would think she had lost, and the opponent would ambush Randidly, leaving him helpless. And then at the last moment, Annie would reveal herself, monologuing about how this was her plan all along, and that due to the monster’s foolishness, she had been able to turn the tables, and now their side would be victorious… solely due to her actions. That was just how amazing she was.
Annie nodded sagely, then acknowledged the practical part of herself that was screaming that they were currently in battle, and the daydreaming could wait until later. Better address the problem in front of them before it became serious.
Her fingers danced across her bow, arrows sprouting from the surrounding monsters that were waiting to ambush, giving Alana some space to deal freely with the demon thing. Which of course, the woman immediately did, leaping forward and bringing her spear down in a brutal smash that shattered the thing's shin bone. Its cackles turned into screeches and it fell to the ground, lashing out with its claws. Lightning fast, Alana drew out two spare spears and pierced the wildly swiping claws, pinning them to the ground.
Then she was upon its chest, and slit its throat. A stomp crushed the front of its skull in, and then she was off, gathering the spears back to herself and storing them in her ring while the demon continued to spasm wildly.
In that space, the turtle barreled forward, its head snapping out, chomping down with fearsome power, shattering bones and liquefying flesh. The surrounding monsters reeled back, attempting to reform now that the demon was dead, but those intelligent enough to motivate their comrades were immediately assassinated by Annie, and those bold enough to stand their ground were smashed backward by Alana.
Very soon, they had a bit of space before the next wave of monsters arrived, and Alana removed a bottle of water from it and solemnly drank half. She offered Annie the rest, who declined it. She had her own water, and had more downtime in the battle than most of the others, rushing to and fro. Alana finished the bottle.
Then the next wave arrived, and Annie was beginning to worry about how many arrows she had remaining. After this, she would have to go around and collect some of her spent ones...
Withdraw. Alana first.
The order came suddenly, much more quickly than Annie had been expecting. Under the cover of the turtle's huge, durable shell, the group fell back, slowly allowing the middle of their formation to collapse. As they did so, monsters stopped attacking the flanks, and piled into the middle, chasing down Annie, Alana, and the turtle's retreating forms.
Annie smiled as they came back within sight of their reinforcements, and a dozen Chain Lightnings sailed over their heads and hit the pursuers.
"I suppose it's my turn," A voice said, full of tightly controlled brutality. Annie's tongue instinctively flicked out, and she shivered based upon what she tasted. The Ghosthound had a switch deep inside himself, and she hadn't seen him turn it on like this since he had disappeared for several months. Annie had suspected that he had undergone some sort of transformation, especially when she had felt the energies moving in the sky to the Northeast, as the Ghosthound had obtained a Class. But now...
As she watched him, she could feel the energies swirling around him, gathering to his will. Distantly, she could almost feel... the image of a tree, hovering above him, the canopy of branches twining together to form a crown. But when Annie blinked, that image was gone, leaving just a man holding a spear.
"With the center collapsed, here they come, charging down the middle," Rose said, then she trailed off, turning to look at Randidly. "If you can't handle this many there is no shame-"
"I know," The Ghosthound cut her off, his emerald eyes looking at the assembled host of monsters. "But I honestly don't know... I need to see how far I've come."
Then the Ghosthound stepped forward, then leaped, crossing 10 meters to arrive far from the group. Then... he shifted. A wave of pressure smashed outward so that Annie and Alana grimaced, and Rose was sent staggering. The image that Annie had seen before came back, stronger, the branches twisting and weaving to form a barren and pointed crown.
Annie narrowed her eyes. This... was similar to the move that the Ghosthound possessed before, the pain aura that he used to great effect to stun the warriors of Donnyton. But this... this was more than pain. It was distorting senses, it was mental strain, it was creeping wariness. It was the weight of carrying a world's portion of responsibility on your shoulders, and it crushed down everyone in the surrounding area. The monsters chittered amongst each other, stumbling to a stop. They were unwilling to rush into his area, but the momentum of those behind them pushed them forward, shoving some of them deeper, where the weaker ones writhed and shrieked.
Then something else ignited, a fire, a burning bride, that hung above the crown of branches and roots. It seemed to be composed entirely of pride and nobility, a representation of the immortal will and honorable code that one could use as a source of strength to overcome the weight of responsibility. It was a demonstration of his superior mental power. Something indomitable. And after it was activated, the Ghosthound's emerald eyes were burning like a chemical bonfire.
Then another wave of force wrapped its way outward, a softer wave, but still as insidious. It was a four colored domain that spread out, and Annie felt oddly... restricted by it, although she couldn't determine in what ways it affected her at the moment, at least not easily.
After a small breath, the Ghosthound grinned and raised his spear, ready to test himself.
"Congratulations, warriors," Dalton said, rubbing his mustache as he looked at the ragged band. Drake rubbed his nose, subdued. He had gained two full Levels from that fight, sure, but also...
The image of the Ghosthound at the end...
Shaking his head, Drake dislodged that thought, then considered the notification in front of him.
Congratulations! You have successfully defended the village while the main force dealt with the Death Cultist threat! Your relationship with the village has increased. If you talk with Cyndra within the next 24 hours it is very likely you will receive a related quest! You have gained 30% experience to your next Level.
A satisfied grin plastered itself on Alana's face, giving away that she had finally reached Level 48, and probably got a significant percentage forward towards 49. For his part, Drake finally reached 40, receiving a new Skill Captain's Cross, a powerful offensive move that was relatively cheap, and would likely become the mainstay of his fighting style in the future. It consisted of two super quick slashes, with an exponentially increased amount of damage at the intersection of the slashes.
But what Drake really regretted was that everything happened so quickly. His Bone Exoskeleton Skill, that he obtained from his Soul Skill, would have been a perfect assist for this situation, the only problem was that it took around 10 minutes to form, and for that time he was completely exposed and immobile. But once it had formed... he would have been able to hold a flank all on his own...
"Thank you," The Ghosthound said, nodding his head. "I hope your side of things went well?"
"Ha, don't worry, we have it handled. Anyways, it is late. Please, rest. In the morning, we will explain more about this village's... circumstances."
And with that, Dalton departed taking with him the 10 villagers who had basically just watched the Raid Dungeon Party defend their walls. After exchanging a glance with Rose and Annie, the group walked slowly back towards the church. It appeared that Arrata was busy with other things, because the doors hung open, and the rooms abandoned. After they were alone, Annie scouted the surroundings, and the Ghosthound moved his strange lanterns. Then finally, they spoke.
Rose went first. "They were definitely watching us, rather than the monsters. They used Skills, but they were just common sight and sound enhancing Skills, nothing as incisive as what I have. Just common... observation."
The Ghosthound grunted, flexing his fingers. Drake watched the man carefully. What no one said, and that everyone was thinking, was that even the most basic child had the observational Skills to witness the absolutely dominant display that the Ghosthound exhibited, ripping through around 50 monsters within 5 minutes, leaving their bodies crushed, their spirits broken and scattered. It was the sort of thing that was beyond understanding. When Drake compared his own performance with the Ghosthound's it was hard to believe that they were even the same species and had started using the System at the same time. The Ghosthound seemed to have been born like this. Although he knew that the Ghosthound used to be human too, a friend to Sydney, when he displayed prowess like this...
With a sidelong glance, Drake examined Lucifer and Ace. Truthfully, Drake's performance fell slightly shy of either of these two men, even though Drake had probably gained 30 or so Skill Levels, and 4 Levels, in the past 4 days. And in terms of utilization... there was no better way of forcing your potential to the surface than fighting with your life on the line. It was a difference in tenacity, that meant that he was much, much more powerful than he had been before the expedition began. And it had only been a short amount of time...
Drake felt a certain amount of excitement towards how powerful he would be by the end of this, and a fair amount of fear towards Lucifer and Ace. Lucifer was tireless, now dual wielding his huge swords, using brute force and momentum to wreck opponents. Ace meanwhile was much more... difficult to understand but almost more sinister.
At first, Ace just seemed like a grappler with superior reaction time and an intuitive understanding of fighting. But then an opponent used a similar move again, and Ace suddenly had the perfect counter prepared for the opponent. He was one of the instinctive types of fighters that mid-fight, would make minute adjustments that would slowly tilt advantages his way.
And both of them, compared to the Ghosthound, were just...
"Annie? What were we used for?" The Ghosthound said, breaking the silence and turning to Annie.
She frowned. "Raiding a strange warren filled with... bat creatures. They are certainly ugly and monstrous enough to be Death Cultists, but I didn't really see much black magic. Mostly, the strange bat things have stupidly powerful bodies. Aside from Cyndra, it seemed like the common bat thing was more than a match for villagers."
Rose tutted. "Aren't we happy if the villagers are honest? If we can finish this Raid Dungeon while getting these quests, isn't it for the best?"
Drake privately agreed, but he was wary of it too. So far… these had been brutal fights, sure but… the Ghosthound’s grim face, as they entered the Dungeon, had filled him with a sense of foreboding. Why then was everything lining up for them to finish it without any real effort...