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"So much for drawing away the defenders," Neil said as the heavy land skimmer threaded a swift and dangerous path through the trees. In the driver's seat next to him, Belinda was concentrating on controlling the skimmer. The heavy combat skimmer procured specifically for the mission had full-coverage armour and defensive weaponry. It was an advanced vehicle that only those with the right abilities could operate.

“In fairness,” Gary said, “I haven’t seen any Purity priests. Or anyone else alive, for that matter. Just these things.”

Racing through the forest, harrying the skimmer, was a crowd of centaur-like construct creatures. Built from dark wood and mottled iron, they were fast, powerful and agile; perfectly suited to race through a forest. The bulk of the centaur constructs were bronze-rank, with about one on five being silver.

Some of the constructs had bows that conjured arrows when the string was drawn back and were using them to pepper the skimmer with arrows. Others had spears and lances they used to attack the vehicle whenever they got close enough.

The armour plating shielded the occupants, who were using open access panels to retaliate. Neil was using his shield powers as enemies tried to stab through the panels, his Burst Shield power blasting away attackers. Belinda was using the vehicle’s weapon system; a triangular column on the roof. There was a sigil on each of its three sides, each one capable of a different attack. One was an electricity attack that arced from enemy to enemy, while another blasted streams of fire.

These first two attacks had not proved highly effective against the constructs, so Belinda didn’t waste the energy. The third option conjured heavy bolts with strong armour penetration, which dug into an enemy before exploding. They were proving much more effective, although Belinda tried not to overuse the weapon and drain the skimmer's energy.

The main attackers were Gary and Kenneth, son of Brian; the fourth and final member of the group. Gary was throwing his hammer, which bounced from one construct to the next, chaining through the centaurs before flying back to his hand.

Each hit came with a resonating-force explosion, tailor-made for destroying constructs. Gary’s weapon was specialised for fighting constructs, being the silver-rank variant of a weapon he made for himself following Farrah’s death. It was enough to take out the bronze-rank centaurs in one hit, but not the silvers. It did inflict significant damage and send them tumbling into other galloping constructs.

Kenneth likewise worked on thinning out the bronze-rankers, but mostly focused on slowing down the silvers. One of his special attacks involved a conjured harpoon that he threw into enemies, prioritising the silver-rank constructs. Once buried in a target, more harpoons were conjured around it, launching themselves at the centaurs around it. The secondary harpoons were connected to the initial target by magical ropes that dragged the subsequent targets. They all crashed into the first, binding them together in an awkward bundle. Bound up, the centaurs were stuck trying to fight their way free from one another, inflicting mutual damage even as they were left behind by the rolling combat.

Ken had the skirmish confluence, which made him very useful in this kind of running battle. Many of his powers could trip up the enemy, literally and figuratively, keeping the skimmer from being overwhelmed by the huge herd of constructs. Leaving the destruction of the bronze-rank constructs to Gary’s powerful attacks, Ken concentrated on stalling the silver-rank centaurs with trip-lines and net traps.

***

“I thought Purity and the Builder were meant to be uneasy allies,” Humphrey shouted from the roof of the skimmer as it raced through a gulch. “If this many construct creatures are protecting the dam, it would seem we were wrong.”

“Making too many assumptions on not enough information is a poor pathway to knowledge,” Clive yelled back. "I'm not sure we should have let Sophie go off alone?"

"Let her?" Humphrey asked. "Since when does she wait for anyone's permission for anything?"

"Is she going to be alright back there?”

“Of course,” Humphrey said proudly.

The centaur herd bunched together as they followed the skimmer into the narrow gulch, which was exactly what Humphrey wanted. He was ignoring the arrows bouncing off his dragon armour since they all came from bronze-rank constructs. Sophie was nowhere to be seen, having left the skimmer long ago to stall the silver-rank ones.

As the lance-wielding centaurs thundered toward the rear of the skimmer, Humphrey stepped off, landing heavily in their path. The huge sword in his hands was in the shape of a dragon wing with rainbow scales. The blade was wreathed in fire.

Humphrey stood his ground as the centaurs bore down on him in tight formation, shoulder-to-shoulder, lances out. The centaurs might only have been bronze-rank but charging attacks were their specialty and their weapons had greater reach than even Humphrey’s huge sword. Dragon wings manifested on Humphrey’s back and reached around him to form a wedge against the onrushing weapons, which were deflected away at an angle. The wings immediately swept back to reveal Humphrey already swinging his sword in a huge horizontal arc.

The sword smashed through the tightly-packed front row of centaurs without even slowing down, passing through wood and steel like a hot train through butter. The centaurs all but exploded from the force, flames from the burning blade spreading to many of the scattering chunks, raining down as burning debris.

That was not even the end of the attack as a wave of fire and another of force were sent hurtling along the gulch by the swing of Humphrey’s sword. It wasn’t as destructive as the original attack but still toppled the charging bronze-rank constructs like bowling pins.

Humphrey leapt high into the air with his silver-rank strength and, with a powerful sweep of his wings, propelled himself forward. He swooped over the gulch, opening his mouth to breath fire like a flamethrower, blanketing the centaurs still pursing the skimmer.

Unlike the flames from the skimmer weapons, the fire from Humphrey’s powers had an extreme effect on the constructs. The silver-rank effect of his aura, Dragon’s Might, transformed any flames created by his abilities from ordinary fire into dragon fire. Dragon fire was far more effective against any kind of flame resistance, from protective magic to flame-retardant materials.

Wood quickly turned to ash and steel melted away as the silver-rank flames ravaged the bronze-rank constructs. Even the rocks were on fire, cracking and melting. In the wake of Humphrey's sweeping flight over the gulch, all that remained was burning wreckage, scorched earth and dark smoke, rising into the air.

More constructs were charging out of the forest and into the gulch. Humphrey turned to look for the skimmer, about to vanish into the woods again. Deciding that he’d bought it enough time, he teleported onto its roof before it moved out of sight.

***

Despite the construct centaurs moving through the trees in a tight herd, Sophie had no problems moving amongst them. If anything, it made her harder to hit with lances and bows, which were not designed for close-quarter fighting. So long as she avoided being trampled she was fine.

She wandered through the herd like a breeze, graceful and untouched. Even when it seemed like she was struck by a charging construct she wasn’t, the very concept of distance bending to her will. She ignored the weaker centaurs, knowing that Humphrey would turn them to piles of molten scrap.

Sophie’s biggest weakness was that she lacked the capacity to inflict decisive damage, whether up-front like Humphrey or building over time, like Jason. She did have powers that could land the occasional big, singular hit, but it required set-up, timing and usually team cooperation to make the most of those opportunities. She mostly tackled her low-damage problem by relying on her greatest strengths: speed and precision.

Sophie’s damage was small but she inflicted both resonating-force and disruptive force with every hit. That meant that whatever armour or magical barriers were in place, what damage she did do wouldn’t be shrugged off. By hammering away with every part of her body she could rain down attacks at a blinding pace. She was too fast to stop and too elusive to pin down.

The other key aspect of Sophie’s approach was precision. Her attacks did not grow in power with ranks anywhere near as fast as the resilience of enemies did, so she needed to make every hit count. An ogre was incredibly tough. The side of its knee, not as much.

Centaurs, as a construct design, had clear strengths and weaknesses. Their speed and charging power gave their attacks incredible impact damage, allowing even the bronze-rank variants to pose at least some threat to silver-rankers. Their weaknesses stemmed from their horse-like bodies.

Against a small and agile enemy, fighting up close, their size and inability to quickly turn hurt them badly. Their designs gave them more flexibility than an actual horse, but it only ameliorated the problem, rather than solve it. Normally, this was not an issue while the constructs were moving at a gallop, as they were in pursuit of the skimmer.

To Sophie, however, the pace of the centaurs was inadequate to deserve the word speed. Moving backwards or sideways, even throwing out rapid attacks, she could easily outpace both their movement and their reflexes. She danced around the charging constructs as if they were standing still.

The other flaw in their horse-like bodies was that damage to their legs could be crippling. Sophie took full advantage of this by pounding on the legs with attack after attack. If the constructs had been actual centaurs instead of unfeeling automatons, they would have been frustrated at their inability to swat the fly buzzing around them.

Compared to the brutal, fiery cataclysm Humphrey unleashed in the gulch, Sophie could have easily gone unnoticed by someone watching the herd pass by. Her attacks were pinpoint and her attitude methodical, hobbling one construct after another with the diligence of a tradesperson making their way through the tasks of the day. One by one, the silver-rank constructs were crippled and left behind.

The constructs didn’t have a key advantage that living silver-rank things did: the ability to rapidly heal. While some constructs had such abilities, they tended to be expensive, custom works. These centaurs were mass-produced models, their main advantage being numerical.

With the silver-rank constructs either disabled or critically slowed, Sophie turned her attention to rejoining Clive and Humphrey. Before she left, though, she decided to thin out some of the weaker constructs while she was at it. She’d already followed the herd to a gulch where she could tell Humphrey had been to work from the smoke rising out of it. It seemed like the best place to cluster the herd together.

Sophie’s Wind Blade power was something of an outlier amongst her other abilities. It was ranged, rather than melee, a direct magical attack and, when she drew on the higher-rank effects, quite mana hungry. One of Sophie’s greatest strengths was that her abilities were mana efficient and her mana regeneration was strong. This played into the natural gift that celestines shared that made all their abilities more mana efficient.

Wind Blade, even pulling out all the high-rank stops, didn’t have a massive impact on enemies her own level. For clearing out a bunch of bronze-ranks, though, it was up to the task. First, she needed to reposition, so she launched herself into the air with a blast of wind. She then shot forward, flying much faster than Jason or Humphrey could with their respective flight abilities, arriving at the far end of the gulch, centaurs bearing down.

Landing in their path, Sophie swept a long, horizontal kick that produced a blade of wind in the direction of the constructs. She could modulate the nature of the blades depending on how she produced them, with a long motion producing a wide, slow-moving blade. As of bronze-rank, the blades grew wider as they travelled, with the wider the initial blade, the faster it grew. By the time it reached the onrushing centaurs, the blade had become a wide but thin wave, like a huge scimitar stretching across the width of the gulch. Many monsters and any essence user could have easily avoided it, but the centaurs were charging in tight formation.

Sophie had launched second, third and fourth blades by the time the first struck. Every part of a wind blade that hit a centaur exploded into a secondary explosion; circles of cutting force like the rings of a planet. If Jason had been present, it would have looked familiar. The wind-blade runes of the Arcazitlan fortress had much the same effect.

Multiple blade waves devastated the charging constructs, although Sophie could not match the apocalyptic force with which Humphrey had left the gulch a smoking scrap yard. Only the low-rank of her enemies allowed her to partly mirror his success. Satisfied with her work, he launched into the air again and chased after the skimmer.

***

“Thank you for answering my questions on reproductive techniques,” Jason said to the priestess as darkness emerged from his shadow to take the form of a land skimmer.

"I think you should be open to more practical instruction."

“Once again, I’m just looking for information. But thank you. For the repeated offers.”

***

In the outer reaches of the Seas of Storms, three invisible people moved through the air, over the road network cutting through the jungle. They were matching pace with an open-top land skimmer full of strange figures.

“That man is very strange,” one of the people said, his voice male. A privacy screen shrouded his words.

“He’s just talking to his familiars,” a female voice responded. “Everyone talks to their familiars.”

"There is no way he understands what that thing is saying."

“I understand what my dog tries to tell me and that’s just an ordinary dog.”

“Your dog doesn’t sound like it keeps tortured souls in a jar.”

“That’s enough,” another female voice said, her tone making it clear that she was the leader. “Stay focused. He may be silver-rank but his aura is strong and his senses are sharp. If he detects us, this whole trip goes to waste.”

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Shirtaloon (Travis Deverell)

  • Australia

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