The party slowly entered the cave, with Orisa telling each member what side they belonged to, either resting or defending group. When they were done with the selection, the first half blocked the entrance, letting the resting part relax a little.
It was five minutes into their break when everyone heard a loud hissing.
The moment they heard the dreadful noise, rocks in front of the cave's entrance exploded, and numerous bugs crawled from the ground.
"Burrowers! Look for more holes inside the walls!" yelled Sean, but his warning came too late.
Similar bugs began to fall from the cave's ceiling, which was apparently riddled with holes and burrows made by these same bugs. They rained down on the squad members like hail, covering the floor. Nobody got badly hurt from the initial attack since the bugs were rather light and also needed time to prepare for combat after the landing. The main force was outside the cave, and bug-troopers served as a distraction to make the squad falter and delve into a panic. Sean skillfully managed the raid, directing most of the fighters to the entrance. Only a handful of people were left to deal with bugs inside the walls, including Orisa and Tiana.
Another loud hissing came from the cave's depth, and Orisa finally sensed something approach. A lone figure of the snake slithered into the light and immediately took a shooting stance.
Orisa made an anti-projectile barrier with one hand, fighting the bugs with another, and the first acid lump landed on the shield a moment later. More followed soon after. Orisa didn't need to look at the scene to feel more and more Mana sources closing on their position. Soon, four snakes poured down acid rain.
The cause of both distress and relief was the fact that snakes were not evolved, although Orisa remembered well the warnings about evolved snakes. And their absence made the fight easier but more concerning at the same time. When two more snakes showed from the dark, Orisa decided to move:
"Sean, I can't cover us for too long, we'll go and clean the snakes!"
"Take two people with you and be careful!"
"Tiana, Bassa, we'll move forward. Advance slowly under my shields and be ready to counter melee attacks!"
When the armored boy grumbled and moved forward, his sister almost exploded:
"I won't let you go alone! I'm going as well!"
"I can take two people, as you have probably heard Sean," Orisa retorted. She didn't have time to argue with the siblings.
"I don't care. I'm going!" the sugar princess screamed and stomped her feet angrily.
"Okay, then you go, but your brother is staying."
"Sister, you move with Lady Tiana and heal her if anything were to happen. I will protect your back, don't worry," suddenly, Bassa sounded very reasonable for his usual self.
"Please, hurry up," rushed them Tiana and moved with Orisa. Together, they slowly advanced until Ramulie caught up with them.
Orisa was confident in her ability to protect, so as a support to the initial pair of Tiana and herself, Ramulie worked even better than Bassa. For a moment, it made her wonder why she didn't think of that herself despite being under the Concentration potion. All her other friends were covering the entrance, which narrowed her choice to Tiana alone. But what made her subconsciously exclude a useful healer Ramulie? Now she had no time to think about it.
They slowly advanced towards the snakes. Orisa wanted them to get closer since Tiana's spells were mostly mid- or close-ranged, and her fighting style was accustomed to being not far away from her foes and under the protection of the siblings. Orisa subconsciously tried to make everything more comfortable for Tiana, even when in the middle of combat.
"Empower!" - "Major Chain Lightning!"
"Empower!" - "Major Firebird!"
While Tiana was attacking the snakes, Ramulie gave her a full set of buffs, and even Orisa got some to her great surprise. One snake was down, three kept shooting, and the remaining two slithered towards the trio to engage in melee combat.
"Tiana, use the Seals," ordered Orisa and conjured a pair of Seals with her left hand.
During their preparation period, Orisa practiced a lot to increase the speed and stability of the Sealcasting, which included external Seals for other people to use. Out of four stable Mana layers, she used one to maintain an anti-projectile shield, the second layer went to supply the Lantern, and two more were used for the Sealcasting to empower Tiana.
"Empower!" - "Arcane Scattershot!"
"Empower!" - "Major Ice Blast!"
Ramulie helped Tiana as well, but ignored Orisa's Seals altogether. Out of three Beasts who moved to them, only one was still alive, but Tiana swiftly finished it off. Orisa took a quick peek at the entrance. Things looked under control there as well; the frontal group was holding out under the assault of the bugs and other Beasts while Bassa and two members of Sean's squad were battling the bug-troopers. 'Despite the ambush, I feel we are doing great,' she thought for a moment.
They were too distracted with finishing off the last two snakes, and when Orisa finally sensed new Mana sources, it was too late. The burrows made by the bugs were placed here deep inside the cave as well, and snakes began to fall from there the moment Orisa and her group passed by to finish two remaining shooters.
As if time around her slowed manifold, Orisa watched the Beasts fall from the ceiling. Their eye-slits glowed violet, a sign of the evolution. There were at least five of them, but Orisa now could sense more Mana sources wriggling above. She readied both her hands to start pushing the Beasts away with her signature Block Rush, but something clicked in her head the last moment before the spells launched from her palms, 'If I'll push them away, the Beasts would land right on the backs of the squad members. Everyone would end up dead in a matter of seconds, jammed between bugs from the outside and evolved snakes from the inside.'
The first snake fell to the ground and immediately stood up, ready to attack Orisa. The two were only four meters apart, and Orisa had no other choice:
"Brace for impact!" she shouted and turned to grab both girls.
The moment Orisa's hands took hold of Tiana and Ramulie, she used her new spell. It was new only in the name since she had already used it twice before. After the last time, Orisa decided to train the spell properly, considering it a useful emergency tool:
A cloud of Mana formed behind her back and embraced the three of them inside a sphere that launched forward and into the cave's depth. Both girls squirmed in panic, but Orisa only pressed them tighter. While they were flying, she activated the Thickness barrier and turned around inside the sphere to act as a cushion for the girls. Despite her numerous attempts, she wasn't able to fine-tune the spell to make a soft landing. The best result she had produced after four hours under the Concentration potion was to slow the sphere's speed and make it break upon impact to use the remnants of its surface to reduce inertia a bit.
"The hell-," began to argue Ramulie but was interrupted by the landing.
The sphere broke, releasing the tangled girls. As was planned, Orisa dropped on the ground, hugging the girls that landed on top. It wasn't as painful as she expected due to the Thickness barrier, and her party ended with only a few bruises.
"What the hell was that? Are you finally out of your mind, you brainless abomination?!" Ramulie grumbled and stood up, glaring Orisa.
"No time for that. Evolved snakes are coming here."
Despite saying that with confidence, Orisa wasn't sure the Beasts would follow her, and to make that happen, she used another spell:
It was the spell to make Mana inside her more active and attractive to Beasts, forcing them to switch their attention to her. As expected, a loud hissing followed. Orisa couldn’t let the snakes attack the squad.
"Buff me," she ordered Ramulie and turned to Tiana. "We are going to retreat deeper into the cave while I'm blocking the Beasts. Don't attack them unless they are close. Illuminate the cave. Move!"
"I'm not going to-," almost screamed Ramulie. Orisa slapped the girl's cheek, grabbed her dress, and shook violently:
"Wake up! We are going to die in a few seconds if we aren’t working as a team!"
As both girls started moving, Orisa turned to face the snakes who were thirty meters away now.
"Triple Block!" - "Triple Block!" - "Triple Block!"
Using her right hand to produce one half of the anti-projectile barrier in case of acid attacks, Orisa kept building the walls around the cave. The path was too wide to be easily blocked, so she needed at least three sets of Blocks to cover the whole thing. She made another layer of walls, turned around and ran after the girls. While the Blocks were still there, she wasn't afraid of the acid attacks, meaning there was no need for a Jack Field as well. Orisa used the time to cast one of Rita's signature spells on the move:
Three Seals appeared between her palms, and Mana flowed from one side to another, augmented and enriched in the process. It was Rita's Fountain of Eternal Youth, the Mana-replenishing spell that Orisa decided to rename since it reeked of eight-grade syndrome too much. Instructions for this and few other spells were included in the letter, so Orisa diligently practiced them until perfection. She heard a sound of breaking Barriers and turned to the snakes. By a miraculous coincidence, she also activated Jack Field, and a mere fraction of second later, numerous tiny acid bullets rammed into the shield. They were incredibly fast and shot from a long distance, too. Orisa noticed several snakes slithering in her direction, and one more standing behind their backs and spitting the projectiles. 'I'm fucked,' she thought, understanding that it wouldn't be possible to build a proper wall under this acid barrage.
"Run!" she screamed at the girls.
No longer paying attention to them, Orisa turned to face the snakes. She launched several fog-making projectiles to tamper with the snake's aim and proceeded to create more walls. Each of her Blocks could hold only a few hits of acid bullets before breaking. 'That shit is too far away from the Lantern, damn,' cursed Orisa before placing another layer of Blocks. Her goal was to buy as much time as possible for the girls behind her.
Despite constant attacks, Orisa managed to leave a short maze made of Force Blocks; the construction wouldn't be able to hold on, but at least it will slow the Beasts down somewhat. When the first snake was only a few meters away from her, Orisa shouted:
While the Beasts were overcoming the obstacles she left, Orisa proceeded to build another layer of Blocks after the landing. She repeated the same procedure twice before deciding that she had bough enough time and now was free to run.
Orisa renewed her taunting spell and sprinted after Tiana and Ramulie, throwing back Blocks to stall the Beasts more. When she caught up with the pair, Ramulie was sweating and panting heavily.
"We are almost here, keep going," Orisa said to the sugar princess. "We'll hole inside the opening where I found Sean and lure the snakes here, killing them one by one in that narrow path."
"Are you nuts?!" shouted Ramulie, breathing heavily. "You want us to get into a dead-end?!"
"The snakes will catch up with us soon. We don't stand a chance in the open, especially against evolved snakes. And we don't know where this cave leads. We might end up in a worse situation. It's the only chance for us."
"I trust Orisa completely. She is our leader and the one making decisions," Tiana said calmly and looked at Ramulie who shut up under Tiana's gaze.
They finally made it to the crack in the wall leading into the opening where Orisa found Sean and had a strange sensation. Indeed, the moment they got close to the narrow path, Orisa sensed pressure raise in her. The same feeling assaulted her, called and urged to uncover the truth. She shook her head to clear the thoughts, placed several barriers outside, and crawled into the room. The girls followed closely after.
"Ramulie, buff us and stay far away in case something goes wrong," Orisa ordered.
"And what could possibly go wrong with your perfect plan?" the girl argued back, nervously shuffling to the far side of the opening. Despite her attitude, Ramulie proceeded to buff them all. She knew all too well that her life was on the line as well as that of her liege, Tiana. Ignoring her blabbering, Orisa turned to the last party member:
"Tiana, I'm going to place a barrier that would let you shoot through it. Use my Seals and go all out on the offensive. You are our only hope."
"Don't worry," Tiana said and placed her hands on Orisa's shoulder. "I trust you. You had never let me down before, and I won't let you down either."
"I'm so glad I met you, my friend."
Orisa quickly hugged Tiana and dropped down on one knee right in front of the crack in the wall. She renewed the Aggro spell and conjured the Jack Field barrier with her left hand, shrinking its size and range to fit their current situation. With her right hand, Orisa prepared three Seals for Tiana, wishing her Mana pool would last long enough. Her only hope was that the snakes would be inside the Lantern's range, weakened and slowed. She sensed several Mana sources closing on their position even through thick stone.
"They are coming, get ready!"
Due to Tiana's efforts, the opening, the crack, and the cave on the other side were well illuminated, and when the first head appeared inside the narrow path, Tiana went all out:
"Empower!" - "Major Chain Lightning!"
"Empower!" - "Major Firebird!"
"Empower!" - "Major Cold Blast!"
Orisa was astonished by the speed of Tiana's chanting; the girl threw spell after spell, sending hell through the narrow crack in the stone. Orisa was sure that this extraordinary speed came not only from the Concentration potion but of Tiana's relentless training and numerous hours of practice as well.
Despite the local hell that Tiana conjured, Orisa felt acid splashes on her barrier; together with the Seals, they ate away her Mana pool. But this was not the scariest thing as Orisa sensed snakes crawling through the crack. They were slowly advancing while spitting acid, two at a time since the path was too narrow to fit more. And two more snakes followed the first pair. Cold sweat appeared on Orisa's pale face.
"Empower!" - "Arcane Scattershot!"
"Empower!" - "Arcane Scattershot!"
"Empower!" - "Arcane Scattershot!"
Tiana probably sensed something as well since she doubled her efforts and switched to close-ranged attacks. One by one, Mana sources Orisa sensed inside the crack became weaker and then disappeared completely. All four snakes were dead, so Tiana paused her relentless assault to catch her breath. The joy of this realization quickly subsided when Orisa felt there were more of them; at least two evolved snakes were still alive outside the crack.
When the smoke raised by Tiana's attack cleared a bit, Orisa saw a snake's head on the other side of the path. It opened its maw, and a purple magic circle formed in front of it. Two seconds later, a purple soccer ball-sized sphere popped out and rolled towards Orisa.
"BACK OFF!" she screamed and jumped on her feet, hands facing the crack:
"Quadro Block!" - "Quadro Blo-."
The sphere came into contact with the first Block and exploded.
Orisa saw hell.
The row of Blocks she conjured disappeared without a trace, and the blast wave from the explosion entered their tiny safe room. It threw Orisa back, and she flew across the entire room to hit the other side. The ceiling partially collapsed, raining down huge boulders and myriads of smaller debris.
Her Thickness body barrier saved her from serious injuries, but it couldn't help against a concussion. Orisa blacked out for several seconds. When she opened her eyes, the entire room was filled with dust, making it hard to breathe. Despite the pain from the impact, she still forced herself up, coughing and moaning.
Orisa didn't have time to look around and made do with the feeling of two familiar Mana sources nearby, meaning both Tiana and Ramulie were alive. She was out of time because two more Mana sources were closing on their position.
The narrow crack in the wall turned into a big hole by the explosion. Boulders and rocks were scattered everywhere, blocking part of the hole as well as making the traversal inside the room complicated. And a snake's head appeared over one of the boulders. It spared Orisa a quick look and began to slither towards her, its giant body coming out of the hole.
A deadly projectile launched from her palm and flew towards the snake, but the Beast swiftly rolled to the side, avoiding it. The Shell exploded, turning surrounding rocks into shrapnel that flew in all directions. The snake ignored minor cuts it got from the explosion and slithered further.
'I can't use attack spells in such a narrow room,' Orisa thought, fearing for Tiana and Ramulie, or another cave-in that she might cause.
"Quadro Block!" - "Quadro Block!"
She barricaded both girls and turned to the snake that was only a few meters away now. Orisa also felt another snake was not that far away, crawling through the expanded crack.
"Okay, bitch, you will help me test my new build," Orisa grinned at the snake and channeled Mana into her forearm protectors.
As Jando said after handing them to Orisa, these items were her masterpiece, and she loved working on them. They were not Jando's best work because of their power or quality. What made her proud was the results that she was able to squeeze out of limited resources and Orisa's own capabilities. Orisa was also ecstatic and spared no effort to practice with them. She even took lessons from one of Sean's squad mates specialized in this type of weapon.
Four Seals glowed on the surface of each protector, and two wide and long Mana blades emerged from Orisa's knuckles. They glowed with blue and emitted a hum, tiny lightning arcs rolling over their surface.
The protectors were connected to her gloves with several thin Mana pipes, which allowed Orisa to utilize her precise Mana control and choose where the blades would appear. Her initial plan was to look like Zerathul, but after numerous hours of training, she found her knuckles to be the best possible spot for blades.
Jando's main focus during the development phase was to jam as much penetrative power as possible. That's why the blades were utilizing lightning-converted Mana instead of its neutral variant since lightning provided more penetration. But it was not all. Even the Seal of Piercing and the Seal of Sharpening were not the main source of its effectiveness. What made these blades special was the fact that they vibrated with extreme speed, barely visible even to Orisa's sharpened sight. This vibration allowed them to break through all types of shields and barriers she could conjure for testing and penetrate them with ease.
Orisa took a battle stance and stared at the snake after activating the Force Guard shield on her right forearm. The snake stopped and looked at Orisa and her blades for long three seconds. Without any preparations, it abruptly turned while swinging its tail at Orisa, but the girl expected something at least this creative from an evolved Beast. A Force Block immediately appeared at Orisa's right side and blocked the snake's attack. A moment later, an acid follow-up arrived, and Orisa blocked it with another barrier.
That was when the snake finally lunged its body forward, aiming at the neck. Orisa's body was way slower than her mind, but in this situation, the only thing she managed to do in the face of a giant maw with long fangs closing at her neck was to shield herself with a Force Guard. The Beast's jaws closed around the shield and tried to crush it; Orisa felt the bones in her forearm crack. Her left hand moved on its own, jamming Mana blade inside the snake's body. She felt resistance, but the blade slowly moved in and made the Beast's body wriggle.
Orisa realized two things a moment later. First was that the Beast's lower part was slowly wrapping around Orisa's legs. The second thing slowly slithered towards her from the crack, hissing aggressively; Orisa had completely forgotten about another snake.
"Triple Block Rush!" - "Triple Block Rush!" - "Triple Block Rush!"
Immediately freeing her left hand from the snake's wound, Orisa pushed the second Beast away with several Block rushes. Next moment, she already conjured three rows of walls to stall it for a few seconds and returned her attention to the first snake.
Its body already wrapped everything below Orisa's waist and started exerting pressure. The Thickness barrier was enough to buy her a few more seconds at best. As if sensing its prey's desperation, the Beast doubled its efforts on Orisa's forearm.
The moment bones inside her hand shattered, blinding Orisa with insufferable pain, she stuck her left hand into the wound on the snake's body and shouted:
As an improved version of the Raging Fist, the spell provided more destructive power with the help of two Seals. Despite an incredible level of might, the Magma Fist has zero penetration power, so it could only be used when inside the Beast's body.
The wound exploded, tearing the snake's body apart. Upper half was left hanging on Orisa's broken right forearm, and lower part fell on the ground, weakening its grip on her legs. Orisa slumped on the snake's corpse powerlessly. The pain from her broken arm was excruciating. She channeled Mana into Regeneration Seal and then carefully pressed her left hand to the broken forearm:
"Source Heal!" - "Source Heal!" - "Source Heal!"
It didn't help much since her Magic was too low. Regenerations Seal was also of little help; it would take no less than a day to heal broken bones with this level of regenerative power it could provide. Orisa wanted to cry, but the effects of the Concentration Potion and Enrage kept her mind more or less clear, which added another level of pain as well.
Orisa felt one of the Mana sources behind her back move slowly, and at the same time the last snake broke through all rows of Blocks Orisa used to trap it. The moment the snake took a shooting stance, Orisa raised her left hand and used Jack Field to block acid bullets. The snake looked at Orisa for a moment and swiftly moved towards her.
'Something! I need something to take it from afar! I can push it away, but what's my next move?'
"Triple Block Rush!"
The snake was thrown away, but the pain from the broken arm jolted through her body, blinding her for a moment yet again. 'Fuck, it hurts so much. I wish I could just freeze it or something. Wait, freeze!'
After pushing the Beast away once more, Orisa began to assemble the spell. The shell she always used as a basic carrier of compressed blazing Mana was now filled with an ice Mana instead. She also added a usual set of the Repeating Seal and the Lesser Projectile Seal and launched the spell.
As multiple shells flew, the temperature in the room dropped down considerably. Without any hesitation, Orisa threw another set of Block Rushes and repeated the freezing spell. Again and again, push with Blocks, freeze with the spell. One after another, she kept them going until her teeth began to chatter. She no longer felt Mana coming from the other side of the room. Along with that, Orisa also lost the feeling of her legs and hands, and her head was spinning from exhaustion and nervous breakdown.
On shaky legs, Orisa turned around and went back to the girls. The sight in front of her almost paralyzed Orisa. Behind the Blocks lay Tiana in a pool of blood, and Ramulie was sitting by her side.
'No, wait! I still feel her Mana! It's not too late!'
Orisa channeled Mana into her left forearm protector and broke the wall with the Mana blade. Not wasting a single moment, Orisa chanted:
A stream of information rushed into her head. Throwing away numerous unnecessary pieces, Orisa looked into physical conditions and searched for damage.
"Back away from Lady Tiana!" screamed Ramulie in rage. "I'll heal her right away, and you stay out of it! It's all your fault, demon!"
"Ramulie, wait! Her brain is damaged. There are pieces of her skull struck inside. We need to stabilize her and wait for help."
"Shut up! It's all your fault! You brought us here in the first place! It was all your doing!"
"Yes, it's my fault, but we mustn't make the situation worse. Just stop the bleeding and call for help," Orisa tried to reason the girl and slowly moved closer despite the pain in her hand and growing dizziness.
"Stay away, bitch! I'll heal Lady Tiana myself, that's why I'm here!"
"No, you don't! You can't heal her condition with a mere Major Mend, you-."
"Shut up! You know nothing!" Ramulie went into full hysteria mode.
"Recall Dippo's lecture, please. You'll make things worse because of an insufficient level of healing. That's what he said about brain damage," Orisa made a step closer.
"Don't move, you beast! I'm not letting you lay a finger on my Lady! I'll heal her myself, and don't you dare interrupt me!"
"Stop it immediately. It's an order from your leader."
"Ramulie, stop. You'll hurt Tiana with that! We are wasting precious ti-."
A glowing fist of Mana appeared over Orisa's head and hammered her into the ground. Another one followed, and then two more.
"SHUT UP! SHUT UP!"
One after another, Major Smite hit Orisa, pounding her body deeper into the stone. The last thing she saw before blacking out was a strange belt Ramulie took out of her dress. The girl muttered while moving closer to Orisa:
"You'll pay for this..."