I glanced up at the sky, quickly throwing together a simple plan as the devil flew towards me.
I flew away from the devil, but slowly. Roughly a quarter of the speed I could manage.
I’d like to have shot up into the sky, but that might’ve given away the game.
I checked over my shoulder. Good, he was chasing, and getting closer. I flapped my wings faster, while barely increasing my speed, trying to show myself “panicking” at the approaching devil.
Being chased by a high-level [Mage] in a warzone was enough for me to assume he - they - were hostile.
As he got close enough, I reversed, g-forces pulling at my face and making my innards flip around. Studying Cordamo helped with this maneuver, [Scintillating Ascent] now able to turn on a coin while keeping my speed.
I accelerated towards the devil, blasting out [Dance with the Heavens] as far as I could. I wasn’t going to try killing the devil, but the shimagu could be an easy target to pick off. Ideally, the devil was being controlled, and once freed, would turn on the shimagu.
Given the [Mage] tag, I seriously doubted that, but sniping the shimagu would be a serious blow regardless.
Plan part 1: Kill the shimagu. Everything was up in the air from there.
The devil - shimagu? - himself had different plans, and wasn’t going to just let me kill him. Three different colors of clouds erupted from him. A shockingly bright orange, a wispy grey, and deep, dark ashes, with glowing embers deep inside. The three clouds mixed as they expanded.
I wrapped myself in a skin-tight [Mantle], Ash, Miasma, and… Miasma again? Steam? Straight Wind? Acid? I wasn’t sure about the third element. Either way, the three elements weren’t well-known for their burst or puncturing power, and I just might be able to keep myself well-protected with my flexible [Mantle of the Stars].
The last thing I saw before I charged into the cloud was the devil wrapping himself in the same mixture.
One small angry part of me was screaming that he knew how [Wheel of Sun and Moon] worked, and he was deliberately shielding himself from the skill by wrapping himself in dark clouds.
The larger, more reasonable and experienced part of me was calmly explaining that, no, he probably just had skills relating to his other skills - surely, a devastating surprise - and wrapping himself up was one of the criteria.
Or he believed in being hidden, just like I did.
My vision went nearly entirely black. The only things I could see were the sun, a pale, tiny, distant dot, and the burning embers swirling through the mix.
The devil was somewhere inside with me, and I cast [Dance with the Heavens], focusing on maintaining it while keeping an eye on my mana. The plan at this point was to try and get the devil to physically punch me, and try to kill me that way. The moment he made contact, I’d burn the shimagu out.
Given how many elements I’d seen, I wasn’t holding out hope. I stopped flying, and let gravity take over. Either I’d escape from his elements, his domain, or I’d lure him closer as I bailed - this time for real.
I didn’t bother trying my Radiance at all. Too much crap in the way. I’d call it a weakness of Radiance if it wasn’t for the fact that nearly every element would struggle in this mess.
I dropped, picking up speed. The devil obviously knew what was going on in his domain, and acted.
Like a vice clamping down on me, the swirling maelstrom of elements tightened on me, starting to overwhelm my shield.
My shield was about to pop. Instead of wasting more mana on it, I shrunk it. It was no longer covering me like a second skin, instead wrapping around the precious egg, keeping it safe. I wrapped my arms around it, giving it extra protection.
The noxious roiling mess hit me like a punch to the gut. It burned, in a dozen different ways. Sticking my body into a roaring bonfire would’ve been colder. The air was thick and cloying, and while I held my breath it didn’t stop the embers from invading my nose, the gas from burning my sinus.
Hot embers burned against my skin, briefly branding me before flying off, letting my skin reknit. Tiny sharp blades sliced across my arms, chest, and face, spurts of blood flashing before me, then whisked away into the mixture.
I briefly missed and regretted not being in full armor, the stuff designed to stop exactly this sort of attack and problem. Then my vambrace melted, fusing into my flesh and arm, and those regrets vanished.
Metal. A fourth element. There had to be a shimagu involved, and the devil and shimagu were cooperating.
My mana was dropping faster than I’d expect. The heat was trying to cook me alive, my healing acting as a radiator and cooling myself just as quickly as the burning tried to denature my flesh.
My lungs burned as I held my breath, my throat staying closed even as hot ash poured into my mouth from my nose. My cheeks inflated like a squirrel, the ash having nowhere else to go.
I gave up the fight and opened my mouth.
A sharp Metal shard embedded itself in my eyeball.
I gritted my teeth, stopping myself from swearing.
I was still falling.
How long had I fallen for? How far had I gotten? I couldn’t see the ground, but I could feel how fast I was going. I reoriented myself to land feet-first, giving myself enough “crumple time” to minimize injuries.
At this pace, I was going to hit the ground before finding air.
The demands of my lungs increased, and finally I couldn’t resist. I slowly breathed out, only for the gases to viciously invade.
I started clawing at my throat. Ripping at it, tearing at it, trying anything to get air.
I briefly considered [Mantle] as a mask, but discarded the idea. It’d keep as much crud in as it kept out.
I burst out of the cloud, flaring my wings open as I performed an emergency aerial twist to avoid getting splattered by Serondes, surfing on a crest of Lava, with Awarthril grimly hanging onto him.
We flashed past each other, the wind snatching any words that might’ve been said.
A few bright arrows appeared in front of me, pointing to a spot on the ground. Coughing, hacking, wheezing, and generally trying to get my lungs full of air and not nonsense, I traced out the arrow’s path.
Right to Aegion and Kiyaya. Awarthril’s illusions coming in handy!
My landing was rough, which was to say I smashed my feet and knees in a way that would’ve crippled anyone else.
I regained more mana that second than I spent fixing myself up.
Aegion said something, but I missed it entirely. I was a little busy, on my hands and knees, trying to get air, to get life back inside of me.
The bigger problem was my lungs. I could barely breathe, each gasping wheeze sending agony through my body.
Bloody fucking healing skills not accounting for shit in my lungs. For WHATEVER System-forsaken reason that wasn’t part of me, and was “external”. That, or it’d get fixed whenever [Dance with the Heavens] got evolved to handle suffocation.
Every exhalation brought with it another cloud of cooled ashes, with the occasional retch, bringing up a dribble of water.
“Elaine!” Aegion yelled.
“Do I look ok?”
“Well, you look better than when you weren’t answering me.”
I crawled up to my feet, then bent over, hands on my knees, still coughing. Most of the dust had settled by now, but my landing and movements had kicked some of it up, making life miserable for me. I reached up, and with my fingers, found the metal shard that was embedded in my eye. Once I had a good grip on it, I extracted it from my eyeball.
My head felt a bit weird, and I rubbed my hand over my forehead, going back and back and back, until I was forced to admit - the devil had burned off all my hair.
I steeled myself and looked up.
Serondes and Awarthril were clearly inside the cloud themselves, the Ash glowing with a bright spot in the middle - obviously Serondes’s Lava.
The ball of embers was rapidly moving north, towards the ships and the ports of the city.
“Any idea what’s going on?” I asked Aegion. He had Cordamo, and being a sniper, had vastly superior eyesight.
Also, somehow, somewhere, the elves had gotten their Spatial Box back. Why’d I even bothered to scout for it?
“Yeah, Awarthril’s finally gotten the devil.” Aegion said, and I finally had the word for the creature. “Going to throw him into the ocean.”
“Why’s that?” I asked, checking around us. The street was starting to fill with people, humans and ogres trying to pick up the pieces of their life that had just come crashing around them. We were given a wide berth, but with our current non-hostilities? Life was going on.
Until the next idiot took a swing at me, and the whole fighting-riot-mob snowball started again. It was only a matter of time, but I was grateful for the breather.
No idea if it was Aegion in his gleaming armor, me with my healer tag, or Kiyaya. The dire wolf was big.
“Devils can’t swim. Their curse is something like complete paralysis when submerged in water. Put one in water, and it’ll sink and drown.”
Aegion’s words were like a prophecy, as the Ash ball took a sharp dive down, vanishing behind some houses. The smoke was near-omnipresent, but it wasn’t thick enough to hide the column of water.
“Incoming.” I called out, seeing a torrent of velociraptors turn the corner of the street, focusing on us. Spreading out in classic pack tactics. The shimagu saw a squad of enforcer dinosaurs and made themselves scarce.
There were a lot of the dinosaurs. They just kept coming, and coming, filling the entire street up with them. At least they weren’t super high level. Just in the 200-350 range each.
My point of view was getting skewed, when raptors stronger than most Rangers weren’t “super high level.”
Aegion rolled his shoulders in the classic “warming up” move, trading out his bow for his sword and shield.
“Can you pull the same trick that you’ve done so far?” He asked.
“The one where you get near them and they all start fighting each other.”
I guess that’s how it looked from his point of view.
“Not sure if the velociraptors will start fighting each other, but yeah. I can purge them of shimagu and take it from there.”
I spat out some more blood. I had some Metal shards stuck in my lungs, and they were cutting me back open as quickly as I was healing.
The right move would be to turn off my [Persistent Casting], then manually heal the area, focusing on generating scar tissue around the affected area, then re-cast with a strong image, deliberately allowing the lung scar tissue to remain.
The entire plan fell apart at “Turn off [Persistent Casting] in a war zone” though.
As it was, as each fleck of metal bit into me, my upgrades on [Dance with the Heavens] kicked in, eroding the metal a little bit further. One agonizing cut at a time, my lungs were getting cleaned.
I darted forward, hopping up and taking flight down the street.
I wasn’t thrilled with my current mana. Oh sure, I could probably survive three decapitations, but I wasn’t happy with it.
No sense in taking risks though. I flew over the raptors, blasting a heal through all of them.
They kept charging down the street in perfect formation.
“Aegion! It didn’t work!” I yelled back, dive-bombing the dinosaurs.
It got messy.
Kiyaya was a monster in her own right, bowling over the smaller raptors. Her mighty jaws effortlessly bit raptors in half, while powerful kicks from her hind legs broke any raptor that tried to flank her. She roared and snarled, her voice doing almost as much damage as her fangs and claws.
The raptors got a few blows in, but Kiyaya had a few hundred levels on the dinosaurs. The only way she’d die was “death by a thousand cuts.”Or if one of the raptors had a powerful poison.
Or if there was some particularly nasty skill.
Aegion was fighting conservatively, guarding Kiyaya’s flank. His shield caught dinosaurs trying to dash past him - or into him - followed by a quick dispatch with his sword.
He was no [Swordfighter], but a physical Classer was a physical Classer. Strength and Dexterity applied to swords just as well as spears, bows, rowing, lifting heavy crates, and so much more. Aegion also had hundreds of levels on the monsters.
I was busy strafing the dinosaurs. I flew low and fast over their heads, throwing pinpoint Radiance beams through eyes and heads.
One of the monsters jumped up as I passed over, his jaws closing on my leg. It wasn’t a problem - how jaded was I that a dinosaur trying to rip my leg off wasn’t a problem!? - but the issue was the surprise weight.
He slowed me down just a bit.
Pulled me down just a bit.
Worst of all, gave the other raptors ideas.
Leaping and snarling, more raptors latched onto me as I exploded with Radiance, summoning [Kaleidoscope] butterflies in all directions. Explosions chained around me as I was pulled into the pack, the beasts intent on ripping me to pieces. Quite literally eating me alive.
I wasn’t going to go down without a fight.
I refocused, hitting the velociraptor on my right arm with a Radiance beam through the head, while my explosive butterflies handled the one on my left. They fell dead, but wholly intact, forming a fleshy shield for a quarter of my body.
I basically gave my legs up, letting the dinosaurs chow down on them. Sure, the road was getting slick with blood, but I could restore it. While they were ripping my legs, they weren’t letting anything else get close.
Raptors eating my sides were next, and one by one, I worked my way in a circle, intent on burying myself in dead dinos to shield and protect myself. I kept an eye on my mana, but I was going to make it.
I was going to survive literally being pulled into a pack of carnivores.
As my heart surged in triumph, Kiyaya bowled over the monsters, standing protectively over me.
“Good girl.” I patted her belly, not caring that it was more blood than fur.
I carefully rolled over and extracted myself. I checked on the egg.
I got out just in time to see Kiyaya’s jaws closing like a steel trap on the last raptor. With a flicker of thought, I healed Aegion and Kiyaya.
“Well.” Aegion gave his wrist an expert flick, clearing the crystal blade of blood. “Why didn’t your trick work?”
I quickly glanced through my System notifications, frowning.
“No shimagu kills. Either they had a skill to protect themselves, or there were no shimagu.”
We spent a heartbeat in thoughtful silence.
“With the number of dinosaurs here, it’d make sense if there were some [Beastmaster]’s around.” Aegion commented.
“Yeah. I didn’t see the kill notification on the devil either.”
Aegion’s eyes started to rapidly flicker, reading notifications only he could see.
“Shattered gems.” He swore. “What should we do?”
It only took a moment to come up with a plan.
“We’re leaving.” I announced. “You and Cordamo can signal Awarthril and Serondes where we are. We can’t fight an entire city.”
I quickly debated flying out on my own, but no. Leaving Aegion and Kiyaya mostly alone was a bad idea.
I started to stride through the street, walking around dead raptors and stepping over fallen beams, kicking up a cloud of fine dust in my wake. With the violence over, people were starting to emerge again.
Anyone who saw me quickly turned and ran away, or hid back in their building.
There would be another wave of attacks, I just knew it. The shimagu were getting smarter, sending creatures that I couldn’t just snap my fingers to kill.
We hurried along, moving quickly. Kiyaya erased any sounds we made, and we surprised quite a few people as we ran around.
I ignored the ones who ran. I purged the ogres and dinosaurs who took a swing, the shimagu culture having a bizarrely high level of innate violence.
About a quarter of the time, after killing the shimagu, the former host went on a rampage. After the third time it happened, after the third time Aegion and I got embroiled in an ugly mess, we started restraining the freed hosts.
We just didn’t have the time to constantly get stuck in quagmires.
We mimed being quiet and sneaking out, and fortunately the hosts got it. There was no way to tell that they’d been healed, that there was no longer a shimagu at the helm.
Once we weren’t getting into fights every five minutes, my mana started to refill nicely. The alarm bells continued to ring, a never-ending backstop to the chaos, and occasionally crews hustled by, carrying lumber, water buckets, sand, and more.
We turned another corner, another street, and came face to face with a horrifying scene.
An old human was lying down on a table, cheerfully extending his three remaining limbs out. A raptor was collared next to the table. An ogre slammed a cleaver down, taking the last arm off and slapping it down onto a grill. They both ignored the blood pouring out of the arm, repeating the process on his legs. The rest of the people wandering through the street were completely ignoring what was going on.
Well, except for two people standing in line next to the grill.
Then the ogre grunted, and the man started to scream. It wasn’t in any language I knew, but the pain. The sheer anguish.
I started to sprint down the street, but I was too slow. Too far. Frankly, too shocked at the casual, consensual dismemberment occurring in the middle of the street without a single person batting an eye at it. The ogre’s cleaver came down on his head, a quick mercy.
The raptor shook himself, then turned to the ogre, who handed over some thick slabs used as coins, then half of one of the legs to the raptor.
The raptor half-bowed, then trotted off.
The grill with meat on it.
The pork-flavored grill with meat on it.
I bent over and vomited.
“You ok?” Aegion asked. I didn’t have time to shake my head before I spewed again.
Which was an answer of sorts.
I heaved and retched until I was dry, until nothing but bile was coming up.
I’d turned off System notifications, but I quickly checked for skills, getting cursed confirmation.
[*ding!* You’ve unlocked the General Skill [Cannibalism]! Would you like to replace a skill with it? Y/N]
Something inside of me snapped.