Ace cursed, twisting out of the way of the bat monster's swipe. For all that their bodies were effectively made from bits of plastic and titanium, they were also unnaturally quick. Not nearly as quick as Alana or Randidly themselves, bless their hearts. They had raised the standard for quickness in battle.
No, they were a good few hairs slower than that, but that didn’t mean it was easy to avoid their strikes. Especially when…
The second Death Cultist gargled in its strange language and stepped forward, slashing at Ace from the side. Catching the arm, Ace pivoted and used its own momentum to throw the monster, sending it sprawling across the ground. From his previous experience, his normal strikes basically did nothing to the beast, and its joints were stronger than he was.
‘It’s a blessing and a curse to have hands that are deadly weapons,’ Ace thought, looking down at his hands. ‘...because that means you have no use for other weapons…’
Still, Ace hoped that people would eventually spread rumors about his strength, and his intrepid nature, using only his fists as a weapon. There was something profoundly chivalrous about it, Ace thought, and although he didn’t generally like knights, there were enough evil knights in the human zeitgeist that Ace didn’t mind the associations.
So he was in a stalling pattern, while the others fought against their own opponents. Around Ace, there were yells and flashes in the darkness, as the 10 person Raid Party fought against the 30 person squad of Death Cultists. Even now, Ace could hear the dull rumbles as the Red Death Cultist fought against Randidly, both of them moving at a speed that was hard for the others to handle.
Well, Ace amended. Most others. After a few minutes of sparring, Ace’s Adapt would kick in, giving him the boost he needed to keep up. It was just a matter of surviving long enough to catch up with them. But he could understand why the rest of the vision-less schmucks who were part of the group were intimidated, and also leery of what the two higher tiered versions of the Raid Bosses would be like.
As the enemy Ace didn’t throw charged at him, Ace surprised it by stepping forward and smashing his knee into its face. Thea had discovered that the most vulnerable spot on the monster was its nose, which could be rather directly broken, inflicting a high amount of pain in a short amount of time.
And as that Death Cultist was stumbling away, Ace tripped it, adding insult to injury, and spun around to face the other one, which was standing.
And there Ace paused because two Death Cultists were just finishing helping Ace’s thrown Death Cultist to his feet.
Ace’s eyes blazed, and his mouth widened into a grin. A pinch! And only in a pinch, would his true power show through…
Heedless to the opponents, Ace threw himself forward, laughing aloud. If it was a life or death struggle they wanted, it was a struggle they would get….!
Lucifer’s large sword smashed downwards out of the darkness, cutting halfway through the thick arm of the Death Cultist. Noticing its arm was cut off, it began to scream, flailing to knock Lucifer away. The other two rushed forward to assist it, but Ace, almost regretfully, interposed himself, striking them in their less well-defended stomachs, giving the other man a few seconds to finish his business.
Which was more than enough. The second sword descended, severing the head of the monster. This seemed to spook the remaining two, who started howling towards the sky. A few moments later, several howls came back, but much, much fewer than had howled immediately prior to the attack on the group.
The Death Cultist’s face twisted into something that was recognizably similar to despair. Ace cracked his knuckles, feeling the dark emotions swirling around him, almost flowing into his body, filling him with strength.
He was almost there, he was so close. He had cultivated this persona for so long, and finally, the System was beginning to feel it. If he could push the envelope a bit more, if that dark, negative energy could become a tool for him…
Let the rest go. Randidly said in chat.
Ace snorted, meaning to personally walk forward and break the neck of the two frightened monsters, but Lucifer removed his swords and stepped aside, calmly walking back towards the group’s fire. Although Ace could overpower one, two of them at once, both trying to flee…
Depressed and annoyed, Ace slumped his way back to the fire. Honestly, Ace knew logically that he should be pleased that he was doing this well against the monsters. They were basically designed to counter him. The durable, long lasting types were always the most difficult for a well-rounded fighter like himself. To be able to easily hold his own against opponent’s that were physically superior… It was clear that his Skill Level had improved.
And it definitely had, but he hadn’t been able to connect to that negative energy, although each day, he could feel it more strongly with the Dauntless helmet on. In his heart, Ace knew it was so close, and once he did, he would finally transform.
He would no longer need to follow Randidly’s orders. Ace’s mouth twisted wryly at the thought.
Apparently, Ace wasn’t the only one annoyed with the order, because when he returned to the fire, Thea was stomping towards the Ghosthound. Instantly, Ace’s mood lifted. It wasn’t often that Thea was willing to stand up to anyone, let alone the Ghosthound, due to her inherent kindness, and the fact that she was still basically a child. It was hard to overcome that belief that your elders were your betters.
So now, to see her moving so directly to challenge Randidly…
‘Show me your certainty, Randidly,’ Ace thought, eyes gleaming. ‘Show me if you are prepared to bear responsibility.’
“Why did we pull back?” Thea asked, her voice sharp as she pointed at Randidly.
Randidly, bless his heart, seemed confused, and tilted his head to the side as the girl approached him.
“Why didn’t we kill them all?” Thea repeated, “They… they sacrifice their young for strength. They are despicable, and we are stronger. So why-”
“...I guess you are right about the Heretic part. I wasn’t even thinking about the possibility they could rush back and have children to sacrifice for their own strength. Maybe… I didn’t want to believe it. That’s my mistake.” Randidly’s eyes were large and green, like a freshly mowed lawn. “But… isn’t this too easy? These opponents… They are weak. Why bother with them? They do not seem like the type to flee, so if they return to base, they will probably gather up more of their kind to fight.
“If we are going to wipe them away… isn’t doing it once that much simpler?”
Thea opened her mouth, then closed it. Then she flushed, turned on her heel, and rushed away, going over to rub her giant bear mount.
Ace grinned. Very nicely played Randidly, although you probably don’t think of it as playing. The ‘these opponents are too weak for me to even bother’ card. But, when it comes to you… perhaps…
Within a few seconds, Rose had returned to the circle of firelight, looking extremely calm. Ace immediately felt a sense of relief, then stifled that feeling. Emotions weren’t part of the plan. With his easy grin on his face, he walked over towards Rose.
When he arrived, very casually, the two chatted about nothing and walked over to the side, and erected a tent. Ace knew that everyone, especially Randidly, wondered whether the two of them were involved. So Rose had suggested that they use this method when they wanted some time to talk alone, without suspicions. Because they would be too busy considering the social implications of their meeting, rather than any other… ulterior motives.
“Did you watch the fight?” Ace asked, immediately after they had set up the tent and entered it.
Rose shot him a disapproving look, then laid down her Sound Ward Skill. Only then did she speak. “...I did. It is as you suspect. Across the board… he probably has a dozen Runic or Ancient Skills and at least one that is Legendary. Because of their… substance… it’s hard for me to figure out what each one does, but they all are general boosts towards combat abilities. Just in different manners.”
“Perfect.” Ace said, his eyes gleaming. “This is perfect. Only with a true monster, can a hero arise…!”
Pursing her lips, Rose gave him a look. “Now you are going the hero route? I suspect it’s too late for that.”
“It’s just a narrative arc shape. I don’t actually intend to be a hero… In fact, I might be the traitor, in this case.” Ace said, grinning.
There was a pause, and then Rose said timidly, “Do you… truly intend to do something before we finish the Raid Dungeon? If something goes wrong-”
“It won’t,” Ace said simply, looking up at the sky. He could see it now, feel the dripping blood from his wounds, feel the broken ground, since the shock Randidly felt, to be beaten by him… even now, he was savoring it, although Ace didn’t know how long it would take. “I don’t mind waiting. I’m not endangering our whole Zone for the sake of a point of pride. But sometimes.... you can’t even control yourself.”
Rose’s frown darkened, and Ace chuckled softly, leaning back on the sleeping bag he brought. Instead of correcting her mistaken impression that he simply had weak willpower, he said nothing. But Dauntless opened his eyes and stared intently at those strange threads of binding that Aratta had been working on him.
Then, amused, Dauntless closed his eyes. After all, tomorrow would be a long day.