Two weeks and three days have passed since I was reconnected to my Hive. A few days since Mark bore witness to the fight in the Underground. Gray's actions during such proved his betrayal hadn't been willing. I had information from the others and felt the most likely reason was the Count. He felt he was compromised, and it wasn't an issue I could force. Until I knew with certainty, that I could defeat the Count, I had to let him act on his own.
Our progress through the forest was steady, despite the annoyance Di'Rex's presence brought me. He was frustrating, in that he needed to be reminded of his place every few days. I would have killed and eaten him, had he not proved to be an asset to Richard's mental health. His journal was mildly concerning, it proved that I still didn't understand him well enough yet. I knew enough to realize that I couldn't be the one to correct his assumptions. He would wave off my praise, and reluctantly accept the feats he had performed as I listed them.
Yet, his mind was an odd one. He didn't accept facts as they were. They festered if not presented right, he would assign his feats and accomplishments as the result of someone else. He couldn't accept that he did things right, that he made things better. In his mind, he wasn't capable of doing anything right. I had waited too long to let him know Luf'Ard had changed its name. Having Mark explain it to him, would only make him more wary.
It was ironic that the trait that I had felt made him easy to manipulate was what I now sought to destroy. It was the hurdle that kept our bond from becoming closer. He wasn't afraid of me hurting him, no it was the opposite. He feared that his very emotions might taint me, that his thoughts were filthy. I should have noticed this sooner, the pain behind his laughter. Richard latched onto others in an emotional way, even creatures he just met. He constantly compared living creatures to himself, it made him assign traits where there were none.
The snake he killed yesterday had looked at him with spite, where there was none. The creature couldn't comprehend such emotion, it was just doing what it could to survive. Yet, to Richard, that snake cursed him in its final moments. The hesitation mounted, and Di'Rex ended up slaying it for him. I felt the relief Richard held through our bond, it frustrated me that the orc was the one doing something I couldn't.
I knew better than to replicate the instance, that if I had slain the creature, Richard would have felt fear. In his mind, I was just too strong, too powerful. I was a monster trying to understand people. I was incapable of simple thoughts, everything I did had ulterior motives. I was just too smart, too clever. To him, I was far more complex than even Oswald. Richard's greatest fear was that I would discard him. Not that I would abandon him to die, but just leave him somewhere safe and never come back. It was worse than death to him.
Even as I watched him and Di'Rex spar, I struggled with a solution. I had a few ideas, but they could be wrong. Worse than that, if they failed I might lose the only person, outside my Hive, that I could trust with my life. The only entity that gave me so much to consider. Despite him bumbling his way through our journey, his decisions had turned out beneficial. Without him, I wouldn't have been able to give Argus the wisps, I wouldn't have gained Mark and learned to use my domain for healing the minds of others.
My goal was to connect to the nodes leading to the trio, but their journey was going slower than our own. In my rush to make sure they were safe, I would have left behind the potential benefits Richard forced us to reap. His compassion made him irreplaceable. Richard wanted to stand beside me as an equal and couldn't see himself there. He didn't know I felt he was already there. Something needed to happen for us to get closer.
I cared for Richard, I truly did, but I also sought the strength of our bond. I knew that Tamers could gain the power of those they bonded with. I felt the potential magic I could gain from Richard. I wanted him to be able to use my strength as his own. I hoped it would make him more confident, that it would open his eyes. It was the first hurdle that kept us from moving forward. What do I need to do? I still had no answer, and so we were stuck.
The wagons were pulled to a stop, as the sun reached its zenith. Richard perked up, "Everything alright?" He looked around.
"Everything is fine," I nodded slowly. "I'm just going to start hunting early today." I watched him through my bugs, while my escort came to me.
Di'Rex hopped out of the wagon, "We starting our sparring early or something?"
Richard rubbed the back of his head, "No, wait actually, yeah, we can start early. Mimi's just going hunting, she might have found something good." He smiled in my direction, even though I wasn't looking at the two.
Di'Rex grabbed Richard's ax and tossed it to him. "Alright, let's get started then. I'll make a proper fighter out of ya, in no time."
Richard caught the ax, while I moved away from the wagons. He was smiling in a way I couldn't get out of him. Some days it felt as if he was closer to the orc than myself. I climbed a tree, before going into the shadows. An hour away, and I couldn't hear their sparring. I considered teleporting to Luf'Ard and bringing them some prey, but I got reports from a node. Kobe was bellowing out a challenge outside the walls of Eclipse. He used one of the Underground tunnels and was deep into the forest.
I smiled a little, finally a challenge. I moved the links, the two wisps talking to each other moved to my request. I couldn't send a personality inside Eclipse's walls, but they could willingly do it themselves. I took command over the bugs closer to Kobe, but I couldn't see him. I heard another bellow further away. He was moving deeper, likely thinking I hadn't received his challenge. I smiled, teleporting into the shadow of the tree.
A single step was all I took when my breath caught. Everything felt cold, as I felt the pressure of something all too familiar. I looked around, searching for the source. Then I saw him, the Old One. He wore the skull of a fiendling, the bone whittled down to look far more intimidating. Pinprick orbs of red light stared at me through the empty sockets. Their body was contorted in grisly unnatural angles. The purple flesh holding hues of various colors. It didn't look like one creature, but many stitched together in a vaguely humanoid form. They were shorter than me, but I could still feel them looking down at me.
There was no time to think, as I rushed at them. I felt the coils of my muscles bind, as I used blood magic to force them to go farther than they should. He spread his unnaturally long arms wide, the claws as long as his chins. The fingertips were coated in blood and dirt from whatever they killed. Even the clawed pincers spread as if in greeting, as they tilted their head back to always stare at my face. Four throbbing wings opened to reveal the scales and flesh that was hidden underneath them.
I struck their exposed stomach, my chitin scraping against demonic flesh. I felt layers from my lower fingers burn away with the friction. My upper arms struck both sides of their face. I didn't even manage a scratch, they didn't even move a single millimeter. Those pinching claws were more natural in size compared to the upper arms. They moved faster than I could perceive, gripping my lower arms by the elbow. The wings bloomed, tendrils of the same unnatural flesh reaching towards me.
I saw a glimpse of the four wings, all of them different, taken from different monsters or beasts. There was no time to consider them. I kicked back with my legs, letting the Old One tear off my arms. They were playing with me, the flesh of the tendrils shriveling and their mass going to one of the four as they still came towards me. I tried to teleport, finding I couldn't. I could only feel the minds of my escort, and the node I had used to arrive.
I fell back, entering the shadow of the tree. I kept moving back, as the tendrils moved into the shadow after me. Mouths took form on the ends of the tendrils, laughing as I rose up from the shadows. I used my momentum to rise along the shaded side of the tree. The tendrils sped up, grabbing my calves and ankles. They pivoted from where they came out of the shadows, carrying me through the air as if I were a bug gripped by something much more massive. I was slammed through three trees, my wings tearing to shreds on the second. I tried to enter combat form, but something was keeping me from doing so.
All three trees were falling as I was smashed through the second one. I coughed out blood, before being brought back to the ground, slammed with enough force to make a crater. My escort was scattered, brought out of my shadow with the light burning away where I had hidden them. My stingers were torn, even as I tried to flesh them. The healing ones were recovering, but that didn't matter. Four mouth-filled tendrils ran along my dreads, biting off my explosive stingers and tossing them away. They pulled back, as the old one stood above me. The three explosions cast an eerie glow on them as they looked down at me.
My muscles were torn from my first attack, my stingers couldn't breach its skin. They were torn, as I lay there unable to move. I coughed up blood, as they started to speak.
“Much too weak.”
I felt my head throbbing from their voices, closing my eyes and focusing on breathing. I held my tongue, knowing to not talk unless they asked a question. They hadn't killed me yet, and this was just a greeting to them. I felt them force a connection to me, as I could do nothing to stop it. They sorted through my memories, slowly taking everything from this meeting.
"On the right path."
"Better than expected."
They took everything that just occurred, even their words. I cried as a spike entered my stomach, burning fluid coursing through my veins. All the damage that was done was repair itself. The ground beneath me was rising, I couldn't bring myself to look. Not when I knew even that would be erased. I hated this feeling of powerlessness, I hated them with every fiber of my being. I wanted to lash out with my mind, but I didn't know what else they might take from me. I didn't want to forget everything, I couldn't let them decide I needed to hunt the entirety of Eclipse.
"Soul state copied."
"Documented in case this one fails."
My consciousness faded, everything about this encounter was gone.
I opened my eyes, standing in the shade of the tree I had teleported under. I heard Kobe's bellow, a little further than expected. My escort was with me, but I seemed to have lost a few hundred. Three stumps were where they weren't just seconds ago. I flexed my limbs, finding everything was right. All my stingers were filled and ready for battle. It was annoying that the last few minutes were gone. Something happened, but I couldn't figure out what.
Just like every other time something like this happened, I moved on. The conditions were stored, and these memories were locked well away from any personality to grab. My best guess was that it was sporadic, but there was no point in searching for answers I wouldn't find. Not here, not now. I climbed the tree and used the shadows to catch up to Kobe.
I arrived mere seconds later, staying out of his line of sight. My bugs began to spread out, and the scouts reported other scents. Kobe stroked his goatee, and let out another bellow in challenge. I grabbed a stick and tossed it at him. Kobe grinned, "Finally! I thought you'd never come!" He had a battle ax swung over his shoulder.
"I didn't mean to keep you waiting, it is wonderful that you answered my challenge. I've been rather bored, I thought Robert told you no tricks or traps." I walked into the small clearing between the trees. A good spot for a spar.
Kobe shrugged, "What do you expect? We're gang leaders, and well the Raven has beef with you."
The Raven came out from behind a tree, letting out a low whistle, "I'm impressed you found me. I was hoping to surprise you during the fight. You got a reason for issuing a challenge, or are you just that full of yourself?"
I tilted my head at him, Edna's memories coming back to me. I could smell Charlie's scent even without my scouts. "We could talk and spar at the same time. I promise I won't kill any of you." I gave them my best smile.
Kobe rolled his eyes, while I heard bones cracking. I knew where Charlie was, and she was changing her form. Kobe snorted, "You killed some of my men, and the only way we'll talk is after I beat you into the ground. Then we'll discuss reparations if the Raven lets you live."
The Raven grinned, "You took someone from me, someone very close."
I crossed my arms, "Yes, I killed Edna. Which name would you prefer I call you? Jack? Prince? Xavier?" His eyes went wide at the last one, his fists clenching as he balled them. "Edna's a part of me, her memories are mine. Maybe I should call you my beloved?"
Jack bit his lip, drawing blood, his nails digging into his palms as a few drops fell. Kobe looked at him, "You going to be alright?"
Jack took a slow ragged breath, as he smiled. "Kobe, we're going to break her. I'm going to break her bond with whoever the fuck she's close to, and make her watch as I skin them in front of her." I struck a nerve, but it was the best way to ensure he wasn't going for the kill. I could sense him gathering power through his bonds, but how strong could the human form become? He was only a tamer.
Kobe shrugged, "Fine by me, but you'll pay for my help in doing that."
Kobe nodded, "We'll talk about it later." He bobbed his head, looking at me again, "Oh, before I forget, Gray says he's sorry."
I raised a brow, "For what? How's he doing?"
Jack grinned, "We captured him after our little fight. He was already exhausted, and I had a soul user bind his soul to the bodies he brought. We split him between the two of us and tortured the secrets out of him. Thing is, we didn't even have to really torture him. Just a couple of days and he was begging us to let him go. You can't call for backup because that would break your exile right?"
Heh, I let out a small laugh. I had no way to confirm if what he said was true or not. The others lost sight of Gray after they fled, but he was still watching. If he tried to sacrifice a few bodies and one of them was bonded, I could acknowledge that potentially happening. The worst thing to be done to any of them would be to lock them up and keep them from any stimulus. Either they got to know Gray and understood Hive minds, or they found it out through practice.
Which was more likely? I gritted my teeth, as Kobe's magic surged. I spread my wings out, my escort flying above me. I returned the Raven's smile with my own. My elastic chitin spread over my exposed skin, it covered my head. Much like a very personalized helmet with spikes at the top, and a jaw filled with sharp teeth. The veins in my wings stiffened, as Kobe swung his ax. I could see the force behind it, as the golden arc moved through the air. I crossed my arms, as the blow broke against my chitin.
Only a thin line remained of the strike, barely even a scratch. Kobe snorted with a grin, while Jack decided to run towards me. It was interesting to see how he used his magic to strengthen his body. Each step propelled him towards me at a rapid speed even I would be hard-pressed to match without using the shadows. His body was only human, a single strike would be all it took. I threw a jab at him in the last seconds, waiting for him to run face-first into my fist.
He was quicker than I thought he would be, his feet slamming into the ground as he skidded mere inches and under my strike. He grabbed my forearm, and I let him. It was better to let him know he had no chance of winning. His magic surged, as I saw the bonds he held with others flare to life. With strength that could match my own, he pulled me towards him. My wing intercepted his fist, as it struck my stomach. This was unexpected.
My upper-right slammed towards his head, while the lower-left went for his ribs. He smirked, as I felt my strength leave me. I saw Kobe's talent activate, the bastard stealing my strength. Jack took the blows, his head only bobbing slightly as he slammed two fists into my stomach, and knocked me back with an uppercut. I felt my blood pumping, as blood trickled from my lips. It had been quite a while since I bled during a fight.
Jack grimaced, shaking his hands. The durability of those he bonded with didn't transfer over, though their regeneration did. He had broken his fists as he slammed them into me. "Fuck, she's like punching a damn burrow worm. Can you do anything about that armor, Kobe?" I chose to not advance and press the attack. My escort hovering above the gang leader.
Kobe had his ax ready, "Not unless you want her to punch you. I don't like that she's letting us talk." My scouts spread out, giving me a full view of the battlefield.
I waved my hand dismissively, "I'm enjoying this, and want you to show me more." I made an attempt at connecting with Jack and found that his bonds rejected foreign connections.
"Fuck! She uses mind magic." Jack loudly announced it, as Kobe snorted. I thought as much was obvious, but it felt more like a warning to Kobe. I looked over at the Minotaur.
A quick connection and it felt as if he was using my strength to mentally punch me. He had experience, that much was clear. He just didn't expect time to start slowing down. His nose started to bleed, as he immediately went on the defensive and used my own strength to keep me locked out of his mind. "That's nasty."
"So is your talent, but it's wonderful to test all these little things." I cracked my neck, "I have a few more tricks, just let me know when we start getting serious."
Jack grit his teeth, "This bitch." Ghosts landed on him, stinging him along the nape of his neck. He started to run at me but stumbled. He quickly jumped back, but I was tired of talking. I pressed forward, Kobe stealing my strength while Jack fought off the sudden drowsiness. He was moving towards the treeline, where his werewolf waited for her chance to strike. Come now, let's put all our cards on the table. I chased with a grin, dodging the blow Kobe threw at me.
Warriors descended onto his face, going for his eyes. To my surprise he didn't scream, just backing away and flicking my bugs away with impressive dexterity. More descended as we got closer to the treeline. I applauded the attempt, as the werewolf was hidden behind a tree where I wouldn't see her. The warriors finally melted Jack's eyes, as he let out a banshee's scream. It shocked me, as the bugs closest to him died. My escort fell around the Raven, and my vision on the werewolf faded. My ears flicked as soon as she lunged at me.
Jack had shredded his lungs, and the werewolf was mere seconds away. She was a silent as she could be, save for the wind whistling through her fur. An impressive feat given she was bigger than Kobe and myself. My strength ebbed some more, as Kobe started to bleed from forcing his body to take more from me. An adorable little trap and I smiled under my mask as the scouts behind the Minotaur survived.
I teleported behind Kobe, pleased to see my strength returned the instant his line of sight was broken. He turned to face me, but his bulk made him too slow. My right side slammed into his left, and I was impressed his bones didn't break from my blow. My left came in the next second, the upper going for his face, while the lower went for the same spot I just hit. His ki flared, the magic blocking my strikes as I smirked. He could only use it for attack or defense. Surprise attacks while he had his ax ready would let me get a clean hit in.
He raised his ax, his ki covering it as I threw punches to break it. He was slower than me, forcing him to defend. His talent moved to the Raven, who was still recovering from his scream and missing eyes. I had time, the werewolf licking his face. What scouts I had left spread out more, they couldn't help me beyond letting me see everything around us. Why was Kobe borrowing strength from the Raven? The answer came a second later as Kobe attempted to deliver a kick. The Raven was giving the Minotaur the strength of his bonds.
Kobe's strength now exceeded my own as his ki took my punches without breaking. Kobe pressed forward, pushing me back as I weaved around his ax. His magic was completely focused on defense, which allowed him to take risks. He just needed to grab me, and the two made a very nasty pair. Such a shame I didn't have to control my escort anymore. Fire erupted from my stingers as they took mock jabs at Kobe. His sight was blocked by the small gouts focused on his face.
My stingers wouldn't be able to break his armor, and this was the perfect chance to use something I've been dying to try. The fire washed over Kobe's ki, as it protected him. He swung his ax horizontally, forcing me to back off. Jack was on top of his werewolf, which just looked strange compared to whisper wolves. She had eyes, thick fur, and just looked odd (basically an actual wolf to us, just bigger). I lunged forward, grabbing the handle of the ax.
Kobe's eyes went wide in surprise before a steady stream of fire covered his face. "Let's go, Charlie." Jack gripped the fur behind her neck as she nodded. The minotaur swung his ax, trying to force me to let go. I did, then kicked him in the stomach to force him back. Two of my explosive stingers began to flex, as Charlie charged at me from an angle to make it harder to defend against the three of them. Kobe bellowed out his warcry, before lunging at me.
I sidestepped the overhead strike, turning invisible from the spores growing all over me. Kobe immediately started looking around, thinking I teleported. Charlie wasn't tricked in the slightest, relying on her nose. I coiled one leg and my lower arms as she lept. I took a step forward, kicking Kobe's ax away while he was surprised and looking at Charlie. That brief second of hesitation was born from the constant betrayals in the Underground.
Kobe's ax flew into the forest, as he turned towards me. Charlie almost landed on me, but I sank just enough into the shadows to get under her. My lower arms swung, the sharp chitin carving out the scar on her throat. Edna's memories knew they were from her father, but nothing more. My upper arms caught the wolf by the underbelly and threw her further towards the trees on the opposite side of Kobe's ax. This battle was over.
Kobe reached to grab me by the neck, and I tilted my body to avoid it. The two explosive stingers rushed forward the first explosion making a hole in his ki armor. The second struck into that hole before it could close, Kobe's right arm missing from the stump on his shoulder. The limb fell behind him as he cried out in pain. Jack had jumped off Charlie, dark wings erupting from his body and dripping with blood.
"YOU BITCH!" He used all the strength he had to force himself down as fast as he could. I entered the Minotaur's shadow as he jumped back clutching his shoulder. I hopped out of it a second later, just as Jack landed with both his arms broken. He was regenerating, as he forced himself to stand again. Kobe let out steam with his snort.
I smiled at the two, "Give up yet?" Charlie was on the ground nearly choking on her own blood. I checked on Richard and Di'Rex to make sure their spar wasn't as exciting as this. They were talking about me, no they have been talking about me. Everything that was heard finally came to me. I stopped, looking at the two wounded leaders in front of me.
More of Edna's memories surfaced, most of them about her time with Jack, and how close he and Charlie were. The Raven ran towards the Minotaur, "Launch me." His words were a demand, and Kobe obliged. His good arm bulged with strength, as he stole it from me. Enough to keep me from being able to move my body. My regeneration was slowed, as Kobe even stole the strength of my magic to cauterize his stump.
Jack was thrown into the air, both of them bleeding from pushing their talents past their limits. Their souls probably felt as if they were on fire, yet neither of them made a sound. The two filled with grim determination to slay the monster before them. I caused this, I forced them to go this far. The first bloody feathers started to fall, I knew this move from Edna's memories. It was why he was called the Raven after all.
Like silent rain, the feathers of his wings came crashing down. How many monsters had he bonded with? How did he manage to get so close to all of them? I stared up, barely dodging the bladed things as they fell. I could hardly move, and Kobe had leapt backwards to grab his ax while keeping me in his line of sight. Then there was Charlie, who laid on the ground, choking on her own blood. She was giving the Raven everything, keeping herself from regenerating. She might die, but that didn't matter to her. For the one she loved, she'd give him the opportunity to live.
The feathers cut into my chitin, embedding themselves in my armor, whittling away at me. Kobe had taken all the strength I had, cutting me from my Hive. I lost my upper arms, before glancing at Charlie. I could still fix this. I teleported beside the dying werewolf and stung her with a healing stinger. Kobe swung his ax while the Raven hesitated. I threw her, falling into her shadow so we could both avoid the strike. I wasn't fast enough to say in her shadow. My leg recovered from the earlier blow. The feathers started to rain down again, the force of them blasting from Jack's wings was enough to keep him in the air.
He looked anemic since the mass had to come from somewhere. Kobe was bounding towards me, he was waiting for the Raven to slow down. He didn't have to wait long, as the Raven began to descend completely spent. Kobe leapt, ax overhead, as I turned invisible. His talent required line of sight, or someone willingly giving him strength. I dodged to the side, my last explosive stinger beginning to flex. I healed myself, my arms regrowing as Kobe pressed the attack.
Each strike cleaved through the air, as he bellowed. My upper arms were still growing back, and my lower ones weren't able to withstand a strike. I leaned forward through one of his wider swings, as he jumped back. He switched to defense as I lunged at him. My explosive stinger went for his stump, blowing a hole through his ki. The healing stinger followed after, the wound fresh enough and poorly cauterized. Kobe fell to his knees letting out a bellow of pain.
The Raven charged, running on fumes. He tackled my legs, forcing us both away from Kobe. "It's over," I said down to him, grabbing those wings on his back. They tried to recede, struggling to give his body just a bit more to work with. I twisted the unnatural extensions to his body, and despite the pain he felt, he threw a punch. His hand broke against my armor. I tossed him towards Charlie who was just now getting back up. She was glaring at me.
My combat form receded, as Kobe eyed me warily. His arm was still regrowing, while I clapped my hands. "Let's not kill each other today, okay?"
Kobe snorted, a smirk creeping on his face. "Fine, I'm at my limit and Jack just passed out." Charlie was changing back, it was surprising to see that her clothes stayed with her. Kobe sat back on the ground, letting out a long sigh. "You know, usually we end up kicking the shit out of whoever wants to call themselves a gang leader. Then we make them pay a lot to not die, and accept them."
I tilted my head, "You weren't going to kill me?" I narrowed my eyes.
"Jack might have, especially when he saw his girl dying. He's emotional like that, but I would have stopped just short." He laid back onto the ground with a thud.
"That's assuring, in exchange for your lives I want Gray's release." I walked towards him, letting Charlie tend to Jack.
Kobe started laughing, "It's done, we never had him in the first place!" I let out a low hiss, before sitting beside him. We were going to have a very long talk about this, and I was going to make it clear why nobody should ever do that to one of my personalities. This was Richard's way of doing things, so let's see what we might get out of this.