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Shara had to admit, she had expected things to go a lot better in her head. Walk in, kill the giant monster, walk out. Easy, right? Shara had been thrown off her game a bit when she realized the vrochthízo could talk, which was a little creepy, but that just made it easier to taunt and keep its attention on her. No big deal.

Then the thing turned out to be sword-immune. Shara might be able to get a damaging blow in if she got a hard shot directly at the monster’s joints, but the beast was powerful, fast, experienced, and it understood that Shara would be attempting exactly that. Even with the edge she got from reading its movements, Shara could barely keep up most of the time. No openings to attack weak points had presented themselves so far, and it would take an incredible stroke of luck for such a thing to happen in the future.

Then the thing turned out to be freaking lava-immune. What the heck? Okay, sure, it probably wouldn’t have chosen a volcano as its nest if it didn’t like heat, but come on! Nigh-immunity to both of her team’s heavy hitters? Even Darron seemed to be having trouble getting a spell to stick on the monster, so it apparently had an absurdly powerful barrier as well.

Things had been locked in a stalemate, until they suddenly weren’t. With the vrochthízo’s rage focused on her, Shara hadn’t expected it to suddenly jump at Adgito like it did. The vrochthízo didn’t even give the action conscious attention, it just suddenly jumped, the extension of its thought process being that Adgito looked like she’d be a good meal. The following leap to consume was a subconscious, almost automatic response, which had frightening implications for Adgito’s current predicament.

Adgito was still alive, at least. It was easy to tell that much even after she got bitten in half at the waist. Her lava-legs immediately lost form and pooled onto the ground when the vrochthízo lord bit her, and all of a sudden Shara began to feel twice as much hunger from the room. It seemed they would get to test Adgito’s fears firsthand.

Shara twirled her sword around with her newly repaired arm, stretching her fresh tricep. The vrochthízo had a spectacular feeling of smugness wash over it as the makeshift lava prison dropped uselessly to the ground. It quickly noted Shara’s repaired arm, and made the immediate connection to Darron. This was unfair, monsters shouldn’t understand tactics. Not to mention the smarter it was, the less excusable it was to be an unrepentant agent of genocide.

“So that’s what your little spectator human is for,” the beast mused, “I wondered why you kept such a seemingly useless creature around.”

Shara just let the creature monologue, declining to re-engage. They were both about to have worse problems, and it would be better if Shara started nowhere near them.

“A smaller me would have kept your little healer alive so I could manage more bites out of you before you die,” the vrochthízo mused, “but now I think I’ll just swallow you wh–”

The monster’s taunt was cut off as a scream that was not its own erupted from the depths of its throat. The vrochthízo shuddered, clutching the front of its chest like it had been struck with great pain. Which was exactly what was happening, as a hungry, horrified Adgito was currently using her new claws to climb her way up the vrochthízo’s massive throat. Shara felt Adgito take a huge bite out of the inside of the vrochthízo lord’s body, and in response the vrochthízo heaved, forcing Adgito up and halfway out of the creature’s mouth, where it attempted to bite her in half once again. Still screaming, Adgito forced her would-be-consumer’s jaws open with two of her new blade-arms, and began wildly hacking away at the front of the vrochthízo’s face with the other two. A powerful flick of the monster’s head dislodged Adgito from its mouth entirely, slamming her into the cavern floor only for Adgito to instantly spring up and begin wildly attacking once again.

Adgito now looked like a smaller copy of the vrochthízo lord, keeping Adgito’s general face and torso shape but with the monster’s snake-like tail, pitch black chitin plates, four scythe-like arms, and horrifying teeth. Adgito was a quarter of the other monster’s size, but still seemed to match the giant creature’s strength and speed. Which is not to say she matched the vrochthízo in combat; Adgito’s wild attacks were easily deflected and countered by the calmer, more experienced fighter. Yet Adgito simply did not stay down, the vrochthízo’s blades unable to pierce a copy of its own armor.

“What is this?” The vrochthízo demanded, “What are you?”

“I’m going to eat you!” Adgito screamed, hoarse and animalistic.

“Child, you already took the last bite you’ll ever get,” the vrochthízo growled, “and you should consider yourself lucky for even that much.”

Adgito only roared in response, swinging her blades wildly as the vrochthízo knocked her around.

“...So, is he still on our side?” Darron whispered from beside Shara, “because he seems a little… feral, right now. Are we going to need to fight two of them?”

Shara implicitly understood Darron was asking more from a tactical perspective than out of concern. Her brother’s mind was a wild buzz, operating faster than Shara could keep track. Best she could tell, he was planning three new spells on the fly, his old standbys ineffective against the monster’s barrier, and needed to know whether to save juice for Adgito, too.

“Let me handle Adgito,” Shara responded, and that was all that needed to be said. Darron nodded and retreated further away from the fight, hiding behind a small stack of bodies.

Shara wasn’t actually sure “what side” Adgito was on right now. Her mind was a whirlwind of emotion, wild instinct, and desperate hunger. By all accounts, Adgito was currently insane, but it was the same kind of insanity she’d feel in someone that was simply panicked beyond all reason. She couldn’t tell whether that influence was due to the shift in Adgito’s biology, the stress of her current situation, or some combination of both, but Shara was willing to give Adgito the benefit of the doubt and not write her off as a mindless monster quite yet.

Besides, worst case scenario? The weak points in Adgito’s body would be a lot easier to hit than that of a much larger, more experienced opponent’s.

Shara rushed back into the fight, moving to position herself on the opposite side of the vrochthízo from Adgito. The enormous monster seemed to be no stranger to fighting outnumbered, however, and Shara found the creature’s tail to be a formidable and dangerous weapon in its own right. The vrochthízo whipped its lower half around like it was swinging a tree trunk, trying to knock her across the room with an upward flick. No matter how much power she had, Shara couldn’t block an attack like that without consequences; she simply wasn’t heavy enough to avoid being sent flying. Shara let out a macabre chuckle when she suddenly realized it felt like sparring with her own mother.

With the attention of their opponent divided, Shara and Adgito started to get in a few more solid hits. Frustrated, the vrochthízo leapt to disengage, clearing half the enormous room in a single bound and leaving Shara as the closest living creature to the starving Adgito. Adgito turned to stare at Shara, emotions oozing with desire, temptation, and a spark of fear. Shara pointed at the vrochthízo lord.

“That one first, Adgito,” she said, as calmly and firmly as she could manage, “Focus on the big meal, and worry about everything else later.”

The simultaneous appeal to Adgito’s hunger and her dwindling desire to not hurt her companions seemed to have the intended effect, and Adgito lept after her quarry. With a relieved sigh, Shara followed. The fight continued much as before, with Shara and Adgito pressuring the vrochthízo from both sides and Darron’s tactical cowardice– er, prowess– keeping him out of sight.

It was a losing battle, though. Adgito and the vrochthízo seemed largely incapable of inflicting serious damage to each other, but the vrochthízo could absolutely damage Shara and would inevitably defeat Adgito in a one-on-one. A single misstep would spell doom for their strategy, as taking a hard hit even once would force Shara to retreat to Darron’s position, exposing him to the enemy. It would all be downhill from there.

Suddenly, Darron’s mind rang out with a familiar feeling, one Shara had trained herself to pick up during their monster-hunting days back in Borns. He was repeating a phrase in his mind, as firmly as he could manage: Incoming support. All-or-nothing.

It meant Shara needed to keep the monster pinned down, because Darron was about to throw down everything he had. After casting, he’d be completely defenseless, and if whatever he was doing didn’t work it was over. Without some kind of miracle from Darron, they had no chance to take the vrochthízo down; the monster was simply the rock to Shara’s scissors. Shara would need to grab Darron and retreat, likely leaving Adgito behind to her fate. If it worked, however, it would hopefully turn the entire fight to their favor. Whatever it was.

“Eat ecdysone, you arthropodic prick,” Darron muttered to himself, and promptly fell unconscious.

Shara had no idea what that meant, but the lack of any apparent effect on the giant monster trying to eat her was incredibly concerning. She was about to bail when she noticed the monster, ever so subtly, start to slow down. And something about that made it panic.

What’s… what’s happening? The vrochthízo thought, It feels like… words were replaced with some concept Shara didn’t understand, but felt like reluctantly getting out of bed in the morning. Impossible. Nothing should be causing me to– the mage! The spectator human! This must be his doing!

Shara took that as her cue to start an intercept. She was already in position to deflect the monster’s leap before it begun, and got a clean strike that knocked the beast far away from where Darron lay. The vrochthízo got up, but its movements degraded in speed at an incredible rate until, with a terrified snarl locked to its face, the beast ceased moving entirely.

Adgito immediately dashed in to try and chow down, but Shara hung back. The monster was still fully alive and conscious. Placed in a bad situation? Absolutely. Helpless? Shara doubted it. Last time they thought the vrochthízo was cornered, it bit Adgito in half. Shara ran in behind Adgito, approaching her enemy carefully as if it wasn’t disabled at all.

The vrochthízo’s mind felt as though affected by sleep paralysis, desperately trying to move but unable to pass any commands to its limbs. Shara had no idea when that effect would wear off, and moved to attack under the assumption it would do so at the worst possible moment. Approaching the vrochthízo’s back, Shara stabbed her blade in through the space between two chitin plates, scoring her first clean cut of the entire fight. Adgito, likewise, took a bite out of the vrochthízo’s exposed eyeball, an addictingly pleasurable feeling radiating out of her as she swallowed the flesh.

Naturally, this was when their enemy regained control once more. Shara leapt back to safety, but Adgito was chomped hard in the monster’s jaws, caught completely off-guard. Without even a semblance of a block attempt to protect her, Adgito’s hard body was pierced by the teeth, ink-black blood oozing from her wounds. Fortunately, the vrochthízo seemed unable to bite completely through and tossed its enemy away instead, before Adgito could stab at the unprotected inside of its mouth.

Shara was back to start. Worse, actually, since Darron was out of the fight. She and Adgito had struck hard blows, but a monster of that size wouldn’t bleed to death quickly enough for it to be worth it. As Adgito moved in for her deranged assault once again, Shara started looking for an opportunity to grab Darron and escape. Yet, with a sudden, resounding clunk, a huge piece of the vrochthízo’s armored chitin fell completely off.

Shara grinned. She had the best brother ever.

“No! No! I can’t believe this!” the vrochthízo roared, redoubling its desperate attacks.

“Oh my god, are you molting?” Shara gasped with mock embarrassment, “And with company over? Have you no shame?”

Shara moved to cover the vrochthízo’s escape route rather than listen to its enraged response. Both of them knew the tables had turned, and Shara doubted the vrochthízo had lived as long as it did without being able to swallow its pride and bugger out. Her prediction came true as she felt, with satisfying smugness, the vrochthízo check the tunnel entrance a moment too late.

More and more armor began to fall off the vrochthízo’s body as Shara and Adgito drove it into a corner. Its delectable flesh now exposed, Adgito leapt forward, through the monster’s flailing claws, and embedded her own deep into its body. Lodged firmly, and with her own armor intact, the vrochthízo couldn’t stop Adgito from taking bite after bite of fresh, soft exoskeleton. Adgito’s own wounds seemed to stop bleeding the more she ate. Shara made a few hacks at the vrochthízo’s limbs to disarm it, and then retreated to Darron. The fight was all but over, and it would be best if he was awake before Adgito finished the monster off. Adgito wasn’t getting any less hungry, and she had already chomped off almost her entire body weight.

“What the heck is ecdysone?” she asked as she shook Darron conscious.

“It’s an apolysis enzyme,” Darron darron-splained, as he rubbed his aching forehead. “Did it work?”

“Yup, Adgito’s tearing that thing open as we speak. But seriously, what the heck was that spell? A huge chunk of its body just friggin’ fell off! Can you just do that to all the monsters we fight, please?”

“Not generally,” Darron grunted, slowly moving his woozy body into a sitting position, “although it might work on opponents with a similar exoskeleton. Probably not worth the cast time, though. That thing’s barrier was absurdly spell resistant, so I needed to attack something with minimal-to-nonexistent defenses. Considering the complexity and redundancy, there would be no reason for a creature like that to develop much resistance for their endocrine system. I took advantage of that. From the body’s perspective, all I did was help that thing grow. Why develop a complex magical defense against that?”

“Against what? What did you do?”

“Mainly I just stimulated the production of molting hormones. Like, a lot of them. Totally natural, totally harmless stuff… if you’re not currently getting mauled by a tiny you. The process is usually a lot slower, but I guess it worked out for you guys.”

“Yeah…” Shara started, looking back at where Adgito was devouring what life remained in the vrochthízo lord. “Speaking of, I should go back and deal with Adgito. She’s… probably not doing great. Can I count on you to deal with the eggs?”

Darron nodded, leaving Shara free to return to her crazed companion. The fight was officially over by the time she got there. Adgito had greedily carved through the vrochthízo’s body like a shark through water, burrowing into its flesh with a tunnel dug from her own mouth. The gaping, open wound this left killed the vrochthízo lord long before Adgito could finish her meal, much do the detriment of Adgito’s fragile psyche. The poor girl was facing away from Shara as she approached, wildly attacking everything and nothing with her four arm-blades. After much consideration, Shara sheathed her sword as she approached.

Why? Why don’t you taste good anymore??? Adgito screamed internally as she angrily hacked away at the now-lifeless flesh, punishing it for its insubordination. Her external screams were much louder, and much less coherent. Inky blood splashed everywhere, splattering the front half of Shara’s body as she waded into the monster’s corpse, just outside of Adgito’s attack range. I’m hungry I’m hungry I’m hungry I’m hungry–

“Adgito,” Shara interrupted calmly, “it’s dead. We won.”

Adgito turned slowly to face her smiling companion, manic fear and desperation shining in her eyes.

Not won didn’t win can’t win eat you still hungry never won only loss kill her not her yes her must eat–

“Adgito!” Shara repeated more firmly, “Breathe. Think. It hurts, but you don’t have to eat. There’s more to life than running from pain.”

Don’t need it? Don’t need it. Hungry. Don’t need it. Hungry. Must eat. Eat her…

Adgito began to approach, mouth agape in anticipation.

“You could change,” Shara continued, “Change into a different form. You know how. You wouldn’t be hungry anymore.”

Change? Too soon. Not hungry. Hungry. Too soon. Pain. Hurt. Not good. Not change. Too soon.

Shara let Adgito get close enough to touch. Even without proper legs, she towered nearly a foot above Shara’s head.

“Would you rather hurt a bit now, or eat me?” Shara asked, staring up into Adgito’s jaws, “Which one is going to end up hurting the most?”

Adgito shook slightly, wracked with indecision. Instincts fought other instincts as Adgito’s rational mind cried in a corner. Slowly, Shara reached up and put her hands on Adgito’s cheeks.

“Please,” Shara said, “Just change back. Like you did when you were first explaining your powers. Be my friend Adgito again.”

Ah, the good old f-word. The one with six letters, anyway. For someone as lonely as Adgito, it was a powerful tool. Shara had been declining to drop it until the scene was perfectly set, to ensure maximum effectiveness. True friends were loyal to their friends, and Shara absolutely wanted that level of loyalty from someone as powerful as Adgito. This, if it worked, could very well be the tipping point that ensured Adgito’s trust and dedication for their entire journey.

Sure enough, Shara felt Adgito close her eyes, swallow her fear, and begin to change. It was at that moment Shara fully understood why Adgito was so reluctant to activate her powers on purpose.

Pain was a poor way to describe it. It was more of a fundamental wrongness, a feeling of the body that utterly rejected the concepts of comfort, contentment, and pleasure. More so than pain, it felt like sickness, as if Adgito’s body was wracked with an excruciating fever, a full-body sensation of utter disgust. Even retreating out of Adgito’s mind, Shara picked up the sensation with such intensity that she physically staggered, dropping to one knee.

Soon, however, it was over. Chitin gave way to supple skin. Two arms and two legs returned, complete with fingers and toes. Panting, heaving, and dripping with monster blood, a naked, shivering Adgito parted her newly blonde hair and looked at Shara with apologetic crimson eyes. Then those eyes shot wide, as Adgito started picking up all sorts of brand new sensations.

Oh, titans damn it! Was anything going to go right today? Anything at all? The room was still full of hundreds of eggs, most of which had almost fully-developed minds waiting to hatch. Adgito, completely lacking any semblance of control over Shara’s mind-reading abilities, was about to be overwhelmed. Not to mention that this was the worst possible time to reveal that Shara had been reading Adgito’s mind since they met!

No solution, nothing for it. Shara just had to deal and run damage control.

“Okay, you just got my powers,” Shara said, grabbing Adgito’s face in both hands and forcing her to kneel down to Shara’s eye level. There was a lot more resistance than Shara expected, until she realized Adgito must have gotten her natural strength as well.

“Here’s what you’re going to do,” Shara ordered. “You’re going to focus on me and only me. You’re going to pour your attention into my head and nothing else. Do you understand?” Shara started to do the same with Adgito’s mind, which was distracted and quickly getting buried in a deluge of other minds.

“Do! You! Understand!” Shara yelled into Adgito’s face, which snapped her to attention. She nodded, and the two of them started to sink deeper into each other’s heads.

It’s loud in here for now, Shara thought, but as you focus more, it’ll get quieter. Close your eyes.

“What… what’s happening?” Adgito asked, “What are you doing?”

Don’t talk, Shara thought, be silent. Just think.

What does she mean, just think? Adgito thought, What is she–

Perfect.

What?

I said that’s perfect. Just keep doing that.

What… is happening? You’re not talking. How are we talking?

We’re not talking. We’re thinking.

...Am I reading your mind?

Yes.

Are you reading my mind?

Yes.

...How?

It’s just something I’ve always been able to do. My dad, too. We used to do this together as well, when he was training me to control it. By putting ourselves in each other’s heads, it creates enough feedback to block out distractions.

Distractions?

Yeah, other minds. My powers don’t really turn off. Darron’s about to kill all those eggs, and you’re probably not ready to experience death yet.

Oh. Confusion, wonder, frustration and terror were all contained in that one mental sigh.

Keep the conversation flowing. Keep thinking about something in particular, or our minds will start to wander.

...I can still taste it.

Yeah, me too. Vicariously, anyway.

It tasted horrible. It was the greatest thing I ever put in my mouth, and it tasted horrible.

Yeah. I’m sorry. I... trivialized the downsides to your powers a bit, I think.

What was that?

I was apologising for underestimating how much your abilities could hurt you.

No, you weren’t. You were apologising for something else.

What? Oh, crap.

While Shara had gotten a lot of practice in reading people’s minds, she her training at controlling her own was more than a little lacking. After all, every other mind reader had been dead for eleven years.

You were manipulating me.

I wouldn’t describe it as “manipulating you,” Shara consciously denied, but her emotions rang in affirmation.

You didn’t mean what you said, then, about wanting your friend back.

Now, hold on…

You’ve been using me this whole time! You’ve been rummaging through my head, taking advantage of my emotions, and treating me like a tool!

No! Shara roared back, and this time her emotions roared to confirm.

But that’s what you were doing.

Everyone manipulates people, Adgito. The fact that I happen to be very good at it doesn’t mean I don’t care about you as a person. I’m NOT treating you as a tool!

I can feel it now. I can feel it from you. You’re judging me, pitying me, and thinking of all the ways you can make me “better.” Most of which happen to be directly useful to you.

A friend would not let a friend wallow around in mediocrity. I truly, firmly believe that if you can improve, you should. Always. It is a good thing to help someone with that, and a kind thing to put that effort in for someone else! I’m doing it because I care about you as a person!

...You don’t have the right to judge what is and isn’t best for me.

Maybe, maybe not. But I do have the right to hold opinions, and I have the right to share those opinions with you. And, ultimately, that’s all I’m doing. No matter how “manipulative” I am, I cannot, will not, and do not hold any sway over your free will. You are and will always will be the ultimate arbiter of the actions you choose to take. If you think I’m wrong, there’s nothing I can do to force you to change that. I can only suggest.

You’re smarter than me. If you really want to convince me you’re correct about something, you probably can.

...If you honestly believe I’m smarter than you, why are you so worried about my ideas influencing yours? Shouldn’t you want to strive for the best options available to you?

I don’t need to change who I am, Shara. I may not be the best person out there but I’m fine the way I am. Isn’t that enough? Can’t everyone just be content with who they are?

We can always be better.

Isn’t that the motto of the country that’s trying to kill you???

...Maybe, but that doesn’t make it untrue.

Conscious silence filled the mindscape, words drowned out by broiling emotion.

Would you rather I have not convinced you to change? Shara finally asked. Would you rather have eaten me?

...No. Adgito admitted. No, I absolutely would not have. The less time I spend in a form, the more excruciating it is to swap out of it. But it never really goes away completely, and the more time I spend in a form the more likely I am to swap without any control over it. I’m so terrified of that vicious circle that I almost killed you.

The unconscious implication being: I’m mad at you but I still don’t want that. Despite everything, Adgito still wanted a friend and still wanted it to be Shara. She could patch this up, and continue with it behind her.

Don’t think I didn’t catch that, Adgito thought.

Oh. Oops.

You’re still at it, huh? You just want to put me back in my place and forget this all happened?

I’m sorry. I really am. It’s just my nature. I look at life in terms of problems and solutions. Can I deal with this? If so, how? If not, how can I avoid it? If I can’t avoid it, how can I make it irrelevant?

You want to consider my problems irrelevant.

That’s not at all what I mean and you know it! I care about you. I really, truly do. I get that my methods sound heartless, but logic only works with an emotional axiom at its base. The end goal must be defined by desire. I want a good life for myself and my friends. I want you and Darron and myself to all be happy, with all my heart. That basis isn’t cold logic, that’s me.

...I know. I can tell. More than ever before, actually. Geez. You say my powers are insane, but seriously? Reading minds is just… cheating.

It is not!

It really is, though. If you weren’t such a monster-hunting meathead I bet you could form yourself a cushy rich life in like a day.

...Well, I won’t deny that. Now, let’s get you dressed, okay? And once we get out of this awful mountain, we are stopping in the first town on the way to buy you some new clothes, complete with pants that fit. And unisex underwear. And gloves, if you want them.

That all sounds great. Thank you.

Of course. And, Adgito? You did amazing today. Darron and I would probably be dead if you hadn’t been around. So… thank you.

Uh, yeah, you’re welcome. Anytime.

Shara and Adgito’s mental chat continued as Shara pulled Adgito’s outfit from her gut-stained backpack, the two of them discussing everything and nothing so neither of them would pick up on Darron’s methodical conversion of vrochthízo egg yolks into poisonous slurry. With all the threats to the mountain dead and Adgito enchanted with the heat insulation spell, the three of them were ready to go.

“So, did either of you actually figure out how to get out of here?” Darron asked.

Seriously, Shara thought, what is wrong with today?

Preach it, sister, Adgito responded.

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A note from Thundamoo

Most of the best things about this chapter didn't exist until I started writing it.  I think that's one of my favorite things about writing: the discovery of improvement, the realization that the story will get better if you simply let the characters interact organically with each other.  The fight with the vrochthízo lord was originally needed just for worldbuilding and expository purposes, establishing things to give necessary context to future chapters. But now, this is one of my favorite chapters in its own right.  

Anyway, thanks as always for reading.  I hope you enjoyed it!

 


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