Sev was surprised the plan was going as well as it was.
Always plan for things to go wrong — that was his motto, though he couldn't remember when he'd decided on it, or why. He preferred his plans to have backups on backups, and for the longest time his final backup had simply been [Divine Communion]. That wasn't an option for him anymore, and so he'd called for them to be very, very sure the plan would work. They hadn't faced a team of intelligent opponents this powerful before, and it seemed stupid to go in blind, even with Max on their side.
Fortunately, everything went... somehow far better than they could possibly have anticipated. The original plan had actually called for their team to ambush Jerome and his team during the delve, when Jerome was no longer in his armor and could have the geas safely removed. It hadn't accounted for the possibility that Jerome would just strip off his armor in front of them, effectively negating the need for the entire second phase of their plan.
Because why would he do that!
Their incredulity played well into their deception, though, and Misa had helped cover for any obvious flaws in their acting with her banter.
And then Jerome called Vex over to remove the residual magic, which was an insane decision that disregarded any danger the mage might pose to him. He let Vex bring Derivan over to help. The fact that Jerome apparently didn't even pause to consider that they might be a threat was something Sev would have found offensive if it wasn't also incredibly useful.
Derivan, obviously, used the opportunity to try to take the geas out of Jerome.
They were expecting combat to happen. They'd planned for it, even; in the off chance that Derivan somehow had the opportunity to remove the geas from Jerome while they were in this meeting, it was decided that he would. They assumed a fight would happen as a result, and they would have to defend themselves while giving Derivan the time to fully extract the geas, and even that went pretty much exactly as they'd expected.
Misa blocked both of the arrows fired by the archers, having readied herself to block even as Derivan was approaching Jerome. Histre, too, was an element that they'd accounted for; when Max had returned, she'd talked about what she thought Histre was, and how the Guildmaster might have been compromised. The prevailing suspicion was that Histre was some sort of demon — they were creatures outside the context of the system, and could often copy and twist skills for their own use. It would explain how the Guildmaster herself hadn't noticed all of this, if her own skills were stolen and used against her. It would explain how Jerome and Max had a geas on them, too.
It didn't quite explain why there were multiple other instances of the geas that Derivan could sense far away. The other Platinum members of the Guild had been cleared and then dispatched to deal with that, across all their various branches; if there were powerful, compromised individuals around, they would find them, and break the compulsions on them.
And so the plan was that Max would deal with Histre, here. Demons were incredibly rare, and so there was little in the way of contingency plans for them. They didn't interact with the system in any real sense, and had no health or level values to speak of. They were particularly difficult to kill or get rid of because of that.
Fortunately, there were divine weapons Max could borrow from the Guild vault to deal with exactly this problem — and when they asked how she'd get to Histre without being suspicious, she'd grinned at them, like she'd been waiting for someone to ask. "You're not the only ones that can do broken shit," she'd said.
To be fair, she had a reason to be smug.
[Right Place, Right Time] [Active Skill] [Maxed]
Cost: Time, Opportunity
Like the best adventuring clerks, you find yourself in just the right place, at just the right time.
Sev's reaction of "What the fuck does that mean" was all he could get out before Max used the skill and disappeared.
Now she appeared again — right as Derivan tried to draw the geas out of Jerome, right as Histre appeared out of the air and grabbed for the paladin almost possessively, and right as Misa blocked both of the arrows that would have hit Derivan and Vex.
And then too many things happened all at once.
First was Jerome. The geas placed on him was obviously a lot stronger than the one that had been placed on Max, and it seemed to manifest as a ball of energy, glowing within his stomach. When Derivan drew his hand back, the light moved up his throat and out of his mouth in a way that looked distinctly uncomfortable, and in a way that Sev suspected felt just as uncomfortable as it looked.
Second was Histre. The demon — if that was what they were, though it was difficult to tell beneath the cloak — had appeared again out of the shadows at almost the exact same instant that Derivan began drawing the magic out of Jerome. They pressed a hand into Jerome's back, hissing angrily in a cracked, flawed language.
Third was Max.
Her reaction was instant. As soon as she appeared and saw Histre, she was grabbing for them, divine gauntlet already on her arm; Histre had no time to react to her.
And the moment that concentrated divine magic touched them, they screamed.
The sound was wrong, an impossibility layered on top of reality. The progression of a broken mechanism. A gear clicking into a slot that couldn't exist.
And that was when everything went wrong.
It was almost a relief, with how well everything had been going. Something had to go wrong, and now that it had, he could act.
Because as Histre screamed in that broken, ticking voice, Jerome screamed too.
"We need to end this fast! Extract the geas!" Sev called.
His team, to their credit, moved.
Derivan slid smoothly in front of Vex, a barrier shimmering into existence in front of him even as Jerome's sword swung down with rage-fueled anger. The barrier broke almost instantly, of course, but not before several others appeared below it, each angled a little more to the side; it redirected the sword just enough to have it skitter harmlessly off of Derivan's armor. There was no guarantee it would do damage to begin with, but it was better to be safe.
Vex used the opportunity Derivan created to run back — the lizardkin was faster and more nimble than he'd been before, with his newfound stats. The archers tracked him unerringly, however, and the arrows fired were so fast they were a blur in the air; Misa had to cut in front of one of them to protect him, and the second one thunked into the wood of the chair he threw himself behind and tore through it, the barest edge of the arrow cutting across his scales. Two more arrows split from the first, but they had scarcely begun to tear into him before Sev reacted; the magic of a heal rippled through him, shredding the arrows before they could do any real damage.
Good thing arrows counted as a foreign object, even when they were still moving.
"Sev! I can't keep blocking these!" Misa called out, and Sev gritted his teeth, redirecting the focus of his heal. There was a strain there as he used more power than he meant to — an echo of the injury firing back up towards him, almost catching him off guard with the sensation of three arrows burying themselves into him.
Not real ones, thank god. But he staggered anyway, the pain flickering across his vision.
"We're trying to help Jerome, dammit, stop fighting us!" Misa yelled — though she knew it would be fruitless. They'd checked. They had a scrap of the magic used to put a geas on Max, after all, and Vex had taken the time to study that as thoroughly as he could. There was a lot he could learn in a few hours, it turned out; the mechanism of the gold transmutation, the effects of the geas in the long term... They even figured out whether or not Derivan could sense the nature of the compulsion tied into it.
He could not. But he could sense the strength of the compulsion, which didn't necessarily have anything to do with the strength of the geas itself, and he'd felt the strength of the compulsion on the archers while they were still approaching the building. The hope of convincing them to stop fighting was low.
Then Vex was blazing with magic again. There was one more trick they had planned.
The lizardkin exhaled, mana pouring into his breath and forming a large cloud around him; a sleep spell that Sev and Misa had already been inoculated against. At the same time, Sev shot off a small bolt of divine light at a small, almost unnoticeable rune that connected the interior of the house to the spatial enchantment. He didn't need to break it, just adjust it slightly — and that was exactly what happened.
A large spatial interior shrank. Both archers, situated in the corners of the house, were immediately shoved forward with almost backbreaking force as the walls abruptly closed in on them; they stumbled forward, trying to recover, but the new interior space was small enough that the cloud Vex was exhaling enveloped them.
They struggled against the oncoming sleep — or at least they tried. They didn't succeed.
Jerome was another story.
The sleeping mist had reached him, but the paladin seemed to be in some sort of berserker rage. Derivan was fending him off, small, well-placed barriers deflecting most strikes of his sword; where he failed to completely block a strike, his armor seemed more than capable of handling it. The problem was that this seemed to be making Jerome more and more angry, and Derivan couldn't get a hold of him for long enough to rip that geas out of him.
"Dammit, Jerome!" Misa yelled, and she gritted her teeth. "Derivan, I'll take him! You grab the geas out—!"
She tried. Misa blocked one of Jerome's attacks, interposing herself between the angry paladin and Derivan; the living armor stumbled backwards at the suddenness of it, but tried to correct himself immediately, darting around Misa to grab on to Jerome's arm. But the paladin was a Gold ranker, even if he was in some sort of berserker rage. He couldn't fight as effectively, but he could certainly throw off two adventurers, one of which didn't even have any Strength.
Third contingency, then, Sev thought, preparing a heal; this was the most dangerous strategy they'd thought up. "Derivan!"
"I will try!" the living armor called back, and he reached out to Jerome and pulled.
Derivan couldn't remove the geas from a distance. He needed physical contact to be able to do that. But he could do something else at a distance, using a combination of his mana manipulation skill and the runic pathways Vex had identified from dissecting a small piece of that very same magic. He could activate it.
Jerome claimed he could do it at a distance, but that was a lie; one that they'd known. Derivan, on the other hand...
But it was delicate. They didn't actually want to kill Jerome; they needed to shift him only enough to restrain him, so the geas could be properly—
"No," an angry voice hissed, the sound reverberating through the house. It sounded like the grinding of gears. Like the ticking of a watch. Sev's eyes automatically went for the source of the noise, and he found Histre standing unsteadily, staggering forward towards Jerome. Max, behind them, was frantically trying to tug back the divine gauntlet she was using — but it seemed almost stuck, fused to the cloak that Histre was wearing. "No. No. No. You will not take him. You cannot. He is mine. He is ours."
"What the fuck are you talking about?" Max yelled, kicking at the cloak. She finally pulled her hand out of the gauntlet, though the gauntlet itself stayed stuck to Histre; she stared at the blisters that were left on her hand, her eyes wide. Sev shot a heal in her direction without thinking about it, but his mind was on something else.
Divine magic. They thought Histre was a demon. Why did they think Histre was a demon? Jerome was a paladin. They'd assumed in the back of their minds that Jerome's magic wasn't strong enough compared to the artifact, perhaps, but...
No. They'd been wrong. They'd been very wrong.
"It was you. You are coming for him," Histre hissed. "You are coming for all of them. You cannot touch them. We will not let you."
The cloak around Histre fell — only it wasn't a cloak at all. They were wings, masquerading as rough fabric and dirty linen, wrapped around a frame that wasn't remotely human. Golden cylinders hung in the air, twisted together in a haphazard shape that only guessed at reality.
There was a long pause. Even Jerome was frozen, staring in confusion at the figure in their midst.
"Guys," Max said. "I don't think that's a demon."
"Gee," Sev said, a touch of sarcasm in his voice. "I couldn't tell."