Xys’ head swayed idly as it watched him, a gleam of anticipation in its wildfire eyes.
Chris stared back, locked in an internal struggle against the compulsion to obey. It thrashed inside his mind like a caged beast, demanding to be released—begging, bargaining. It whispered to him, promising the pain of the poison flowing within him would abate, and strengthen him instead, if only he would obey.
It was a slippery thought, insidious, more ophidian than the snake itself. A coiled whisper waiting to strike, offering peace to be found in surrender, the peaceful transfixation of doomed prey. If only he succumbed, he would be stronger. If only he relinquished, he would be freed. If. If. If.
Potentials whirled within his mind, and the serpent slid closer, a sinuous wave across wet and blackened ground.
[Danger Sense] activated, breaking him out of the serpent’s compulsion, moments before the snake’s forked tongue flicked out to christen his forehead with poison. It missed. Just.
He dodged to the left, swinging his hammer up into the snake’s lower jaw. The snake’s mouth slammed shut and its upper fangs sank through the soft flesh of its chin before it could angle them back. The snake whipped its head, forcing Chris to release the weapon or risk being tossed away with it.
He summoned his Beast Soul Weapon instead, slicing the curved blade into the monster’s eye, carving an easy cut through its face.
The snake hissed at him as blood welled from the wound, rising up from a diagonal of splintered scale that bisected its eye.
Chris stepped back farther as Xys rose, ascending to its full height. It turned its head so that its single remaining eye gazed down at him. The snake opened its mouth wide, its fangs sliding free of its lower jaw, releasing a rain of blood and venom that hissed and steamed against the ground. The monster fixed him with half a glare—filled with twice the fire.
Chris felt himself freeze as the compulsion resurged.
The snake struck and Chris’ [Danger Sense] flared again. Too late. Chris jumped away, but fanged jaws closed around his arm up to the elbow.
Xys reared in triumph, the motion lifting Chris into the air by his captured arm. Its fangs began to pump its red venom into the struggling human.
Chris’ eyes widened, he jerked his arm free of his shield, where it clattered to the ground, breaking in half along the line corroded in it by the serpent’s venom. He vanished his Beast Soul Weapon, then manifested it in his other hand. He choked up on the haft just as he felt the first flares of pain from the toxin pouring into him.
He activated [Sunder] and struck at the serpent’s throat, eliciting a hiss from the monster and drawing another upwelling of blood—thicker and more plentiful than elsewhere. He struck once more, the second cut crisscrossing the first. Xys failed to release him.
It didn’t need to. Chris’ arm dissolved in the serpent’s mouth; it turned into torrents of green, filled with blooms of red—slime and venom.
Chris landed heavily and rolled, dismissing his Beast Soul Weapon. He was low on mana and needed to conserve as much as possible, in case the monster hadn’t been put down for good. He said a silent prayer for the VRMMOs he’d played; if it weren’t for them, he’d have no clue how to ration his mana pool, or use a weapon. Not that he really knew how to use weapons anyway. Maybe it was Luck, or Wisdom, or Perception, or Intelligence—maybe it was all three—but it seemed like he wasn’t handling himself too badly. Except for the fact that he was missing his arm at the elbow, and he was pretty sure Xys had dislocated his shoulder when it tugged him up into the air.
He stopped in a crouch, eyeing the monster warily. It thrashed its head from side to side as steam started rising from its mouth. Globs of green goo dripped out from the two holes in its jaws, spattering the ground.
Xys’ face was a ruined mess. The creature had swallowed part of the gooey arm, and now the acidic jelly was wreaking havoc on its insides. The snake might be immune to its own poison, but flesh-eating acid was a different matter. Come to think of it, that same flesh-eating acid was happily swimming around within his body. Now that was a scary thought!
Either way, the monster was distracted, so he ran up to its body and resummoned his Beast Soul Weapon, fixing it beneath Xys’ reared-up body like a boar spear. Then, he headbutted the snake’s side with [Sunder]. It wasn’t very effective; honestly, he’d hurt himself with the attack more than he’d hurt the serpent. But Xys noticed, and Xys was pissed.
The snake rolled over, trying to crush him. The ground was slick with rain, and the snake was unable to stop its momentum. The weapon pierced clean through it as Chris jumped away. Moments later, no longer being held, the weapon vanished into smoke that streamed back into Chris’ body.
The damage had been done. At least he hoped it had. He fled from the spasming snake, only just realizing that the clearing was surrounded on all sides by the poison-possessed boars. They didn’t dare approach the tree or the snake, though, so they just stared unblinkingly into the rain-soaked arena.
Chris watched the snake warily, he was down one arm, critically low on mana, and weaponless. One of those he could fix in short order. He circled the clearing until he found his hammer and picked it up. The weight felt odd in his left hand—he was already used to holding a shield there. He’d just have to make do with what he had.
The snake had regained some semblance of composure now, but it was slow and sluggish as the blood loss took hold. It slithered toward him, intent on taking him down.
Chris circled away, moving at a light jog to keep out of reach. There was no point in fighting when the creature might just bleed out. Sure enough, Xys slowed further, its one remaining eye growing heavy. The monster moved at no more than a crawl and Chris matched its pace, walking backward so he could constantly keep an eye on the monster.
Then the serpent drew in a pained, rattling breath and its head collapsed into the wet grass, venom dribbling from its mouth in a slow red stream. It scorched the surrounding grass, the sizzle masked by the constant fall of rain. Chris walked forward and raised his hammer for the killing blow, aimed squarely at the region of cracked scale on the monster’s head.
A glint of red light caught his attention, filtering through a visor-like chink in Xys’ eyelid. Why was the snake looking at him?
Xys lashed forward and buried its fangs in his leg, even as the hammer slammed into the cracked scales, breaking through.
Chris froze as he felt toxin sear its way into his leg and through his veins. The snake had only been partially sandbagging, and now it collapsed for real—completely spent. But it was too late. He could feel his Slime blood fighting the venom in his veins, but much of it had been lost when the serpent ate his arm.
He pried his leg free of the snake and crawled away as the pain spread through him. Remembering his potions, he pushed one, then another, out of the tattoos. He should have had tattoos, at least. But they were gone, devoured by the snake along with his arm. Still, the potions dropped out of the air where his arm should have been. He set aside his hammer and quaffed the first, then the second.
His wounds healed quickly and his dislocated shoulder slammed back into its socket with a painful pop, but the potions did nothing for the venom inside him. Without the snake’s attention it was an aimless, directionless poison—lacking the fiery compulsion it once had, but still ravaging the tissues nearby. It was, just like the snake’s eyes, a wildfire burning beyond all control.
His arm began reforming, next, Slime growing from the stump until a forearm and five digits were visible. It reminded him of something, even as the poison spread. He circulated his mana in the way dictated by the troll’s Cultivation Technique, then activated the stolen trait: Stone Form.
It only applied to the Slime, but it was in his blood, just like the venom. He could feel the toxin gnawing its way toward his vital organs—already partially there, courtesy of the poisoned mist. He had no time to be specific.
The rain fell softly, swallowing the last gasps of the snake, the mist lessened and boars lay collapsed at the edge of the clearing, the red light in their eyes fading with the snake’s. And at the center of it all, beside a skeletal tree, stood Christopher, rigid and still as his veins turned to stone.