It was a prickling across my skin, a shiver up my neck and down my arms. My frantic eyes were drawn to everyone else, moving unaware. I twisted, unable to locate what was wrong when I found Rose and Jack staring at me with wide eyes.
No, behind me. Screams broke out.
In a single moment, everything crystalized, and I whirled around. A nightmare loomed. A too-human grin on a creature that was anything but. Angular features as to highlight a sharpness in the air. Hands that stretched to long claws. Black skin that seemed to meld with the dark.
Eyes that crinkled in malicious glee. It was leaning out of my shadow, emerging as if from some invisible pool. As if my shadow was liquid. And it was about to kill me.
Its arm swung out and instinct carried me inside its range, daring to approach. [Solo’s Instinct] screamed.
“They’re in our shadows!” I yelled, hearing chaos.
“Parker, behind you!” A distant shout. “I-it’s a demon! A demon!”
“Evahn!” Jack yelled voice desperate, much closer. “Rose—”
“To me!” Someone’s shout pierced the area. “The [Glow Pendant]! Rickson!”
My body moved before I could even process the danger. A part of me had already learned inaction lead to death. Muscle memory, cultivated through my clones, demanded I move.
I bent out of the way faster than I had any right to. Quicker and nimbler than I’d ever been. A thrusting claw met the space I should’ve been and I twisted. A whirlwind of air whipped my hair back.
It almost seemed surprised it had missed, features just human enough to display the emotion. Its head cocked to the side to regard me in a way that was distinctly not. I had no time to be surprised.
“Evahn!” And a plume of fire exploded across its shoulder, causing it to swing its head to Rose with a hiss of pain and flame. It had teeth as long as my fingers, all glistening white. “Get back! We need to get to Parker!”
“Go!” I yelled, making my way backward. “I can stall it!” My heart was racing and all my attention was on this otherworldly creature. This was on another level than the things we had fought thus far. It was—
It lunged forward with a devilish grin, horns curling up across its forehead. Its claws were reaching, looking to slash and rend. I rolled to the floor as the space I was in exploded in a spray of dirt. Its arm had blurred with speed.
I scrambled to my feet and—
My eyes widened as I craned my neck upward, finding those nightmarish claws racing for my face. [Solo’s Instinct] saved me and somehow I seized its wrist with both hands, my own reaction surprising me, surprising both of us. I strained against it as another [Firebolt] struck it across the face, melting its skin, and eliciting an unholy roar.
“Run!” Rose was yelling.
But my senses were riding high and I felt more than saw the opportunity. Another aspect of [Solo’s Instinct] guiding my decisions. I wasted no time in its moment of weakness.
I yanked it forward in its moment of agony and instantly unsheathed my knife, finally finding the time. Of crude goblin make, I was thankful it was at least sharp. My hand found the handle with ease, fingers more nimble than ever, and I was upon it pulling the knife across its throat before it could even react.
I stood up, black blood covering me. Pale green eyes behind a mask of blood. I couldn't spare a moment to think. There was time to think later.
I heard Gary in the distance, somehow calm despite it all, yelling out commands organizing the chaos. I heard voices, Parker, Rickson, everyone. I saw them harried, ambushed through means I’d never thought to expect.
How… how the hell? Jack was staring at me, having been unable to do anything. He’s…he’s insane. “H-how?” He asked.
“Jack, Rose, stay here. Away from the shadows!” I yelled at them.
“Where are you going?” Rose looked at me.
The rest of the group was under attack and I rushed forward without pause. I was faster, my feet more sure upon the ground, a newfound strength in my limbs. I was the closest one to help the middle of the pack—the original me, that was.
Sixth didn’t have to pause at the treeline to gauge the situation. He, like every incoming clone, already knew what was happening. So it was with that surety that four clones dashed into the clearing, unassuming figures shrouded from notice by the dimness of the [Sleepywood].
No hesitation, not now.
“[Power Strike]!” Parker roared and I saw the air ripple in that way even I couldn’t manage. Instead of a punch, his kick sent the creature a few feet back, grasping its stomach with rage.
“Everyone stay back!” His [Glow Pendant] seemed to weaken the thing with soft light, brightening the dim twilight. “Behind me! Everyone careful!”
The thing was wary of Parker, hesitant. It wasn’t the time to retreat but advance, to press the creature further off-balance. That was how I saw it. But I operated without fear for my life.
Sixth rammed into the creature with all the force of his weight, a decidedly regular feat of strength. It was enough to send the demonic thing a few feet back. Sheer momentum enough to substitute strength.
“Evahn! We can’t fight that thing! Get back! The [Glow Pendant]...” He trailed off, staring. “Evahn?”
“How is he doing that?” Gary said wide-eyed.
I ducked under its strikes, weaving between its sharp movements like flowing water. An incredible display of precision and instinct. A confidence that was a necessity, born on the edge of death. Fueled by fear of pain and agony, but no consequence beyond it.
Sixth took on the creature as only a madman could. Evasively, cautiously, but with absolute confidence. A complete disregard for any repercussions a mistake might visit. It was almost as if he had eyes at the back of his head.
“It’s a Skill! Stop staring, move!” Something in Gary’s voice filtered away my fear, courage rising within me. All my clones moved easier.
Seventh slammed into the creature, dragging it down. Its head rotated and bit down on my shoulder. The pain resonated, the tearing teeth and rent flesh. Pain. A flash of searing heat across every clone.
But an agony no worse than anything I’d already endured.
“What the hell?” Someone whispered. “There’s two of—”
“Don’t just stand there! Help him!” Rickson yelled, wide-eyed at seeing a second me.
“Help him!” Parker shouted, rushing forward. “Both of them, damn it!”
Slowly, then with increasing speed and urgency, help came. My strength, despite my numbers, was not enough to overwhelm the thing. Instead, it was a combination of various Skills, displays of power, and strength sheer stats and numbers couldn’t exactly match, that left the creature dead upon the tinted blue grass, black blood seeping through the soil.
My original self helped a struggling man in the middle of the group. “D-demon!” He screamed, scrambling backward, waving a knife around. “Help me! Help me!” He pleaded as the creature approached, enjoying the frantic babbling of its prey.
Eighth and Ninth each took to an arm, the latter receiving a gash across the chest, the former stabbed in the arm. It was just too fast for my clones to respond. They could react and process the movements, but at a certain point, its reach and maneuverability earned it my cloned blood.
And yet, together, I moved.
Three of me, moving in tandem. I could sense its intent, faintly, and moved from where it might strike. My hair whipped forward and backward with the force of its lethality. Angry, it dashed forward, but Eighth was there, ducking under its blows and sticking out his leg.
It tripped and fell, rolling to the floor. And tried to get up—
Ninth stomped on its arm, shattering the bone at the elbow, then snapping what was left by pulling the arm where it shouldn’t bend. It screamed, black blood leaking. My other clone did the same, the force of gravity a welcome friend. It reared its ugly head and I kicked it across the face, slamming my foot down on its skull.
Then I brought my fist down upon its back with all my strength, testing that influx of stats. My fist made contact, faster than the eye, and something within the devilish beast burst. It looked at me, eyes glaring even in its last moments, before going still.
[Dungeon Notice]: For defeating three Nightmare Ifrits, your group is rewarded with two [Uncommon Chests].
[Dungeon Notice]: Congratulations! As you are the first group to explore the [Sleepywood] the [Uncommon Chest] rewards have been upgraded to [Unusual Chests].
I let out a breath.
And found many people staring at me.