Vex was realizing that getting to that dark, oozing gate on the other side of the core-space was easier said than done.
That was what he'd decided to call it for now, since he had no other words for it, and there was no literature to explain what it was. Core-space — an intermediary space between the world and whatever it was that created monsters during a dungeon break.
Not that he'd had all that much time to figure out the name.
"Watch out!" Sev shouted. Light blue flared across their vision as he cast, divine magic flickering into existence in front of them; a Gold-ranked Elite insectoid slammed into them just a second after the barrier formed. Thin, needlepoint legs stabbed into the surface of the barrier, poking holes through it easily but not quite tearing the whole structure down.
Derivan sliced through the limbs that poked through the holes, eliciting an angry screech. Vex tore through it a second later with a [Mana Blast], concentrated into thin lasers that burned holes in its chitin. But he could already see a problem: they needed a way to clear away a large number of enemies; fighting through them like this was slow, and would exhaust them long before they managed to reach the gate.
Fortunately, he'd had time to figure this space out. He'd had time to understand, thanks to Misa and Derivan's efforts in protecting the two more fragile casters. This space wasn't filled with ambient mana, not in the same way the Nucleus had been.
But there was something else he could take advantage of.
They were in an area that was highly spatially compressed. Now that they were inside the core-space, they, too, were being spatially compressed.
So what if he undid that compression at the moment his [Fireball] landed?
That couldn't be the only thing that he did, was the problem; if all he did was increase the size of a [Fireball], then all he would do was agitate far more monsters than the team could handle, for a single spell would be far from enough to kill all the Gold and Silver ranked monsters the spell would undoubtedly hit. He needed to scale up the damage, or else modify the spell so that it took out the monsters it hit in some way.
Manaburn would be useless. These insectoids were warriors, not mages, and unlike a lot of lower-leveled creatures they didn't rely on mana-based attacks to do damage; they had raw stats to fuel their strikes.
Sleep had no guarantee of working on monster physiology.
Which meant a different route. Something he'd seen before, even.
"Misa," he said calmly. "I'm going to make a [Fireball], and I'm going to need you to hit it with a [Paralyzing Bash]."
"What?" Misa winced as one of the insectoid-creatures crashed into her right as she spoke; she swung her mace wildly, knocking it away as it tried to cut and slice into her. It was a good thing they were light. "Fine. Ready when you are."
"Almost," Vex responded, and focused on his spell. [Fireball] was still his favorite for modifications.
He hadn't quite understood how the Overseer had managed to absorb and reflect Derivan's [Paralyzing Slash] back when it had happened. But now, with the fight against the Aberrant, he thought he understood.
Arcane mana was the key.
He finished the spell. It was a [Fireball], but it was not. The core was pure Arcane, and the inner layer of the spell was set to invert the spatial compression set upon it; the outer layer was linked to the core, to allow Misa's [Paralyzing Bash] to propagate into the core —
Unknown skill attempted!
Displaying best approximation.
[Arcane Mimicry ### Fireball]
It was an imperfect attempt, he knew immediately. He saw in the corner of his eye Derivan cocking his head, as though curious, or like he'd noticed something strange. Perhaps his magic stat at work? All Vex knew was that there was still a key he was missing. But the spell was cast, and hopefully it would be good enough—
"Now!" he shouted, stepping backwards, and Misa kicked off the monster she was fighting in a sharp, vicious movement; in the next instant, her mace crackled with the familiar black lightning that was characteristic of any of the [Paralyzing] series of skills, and the blunt end of her mace smashed into the spell.
It soared into the air like a ball hit with a bat. For a long moment, everything seemed still; even the monsters paused, as if they had no idea what to make of the spell flying over their heads.
Then it struck the ground, and everything turned to chaos.
The spatial layer triggered, undoing the effect of spatial compression on the spell; just before it shattered, the spell expanded, growing to more than ten times its original size. Then that layer of the spell shattered completely, unleashing what had once been Arcane mana in a spherical burst, except this was Arcane mana that had adopted the element behind Misa's [Paralyzing Bash]. It wasn't fire that exploded into the air, cooking everything it touched.
It was lightning.
Electricity blazed outwards in a display that looked bizarrely like a fireball, as if the spell was still trying to adhere to its original parameters; rather than smoke and fire, bright sparks of current scattered, branching out and then back in, trying to secure a shape that it didn't quite know how to maintain. It ripped through the monsters that it stuck, not quite hitting them with the stun effect, and doing the damage that pure elemental lightning would do instead.
Which was a lot more damage than a fireball.
"What did you do?" Misa asked, her eyes wide.
"Piss off a lot of monsters," Vex answered grimly.
Technically, they'd managed to transform a fireball into a lightning storm; stripped of the stunning aspect of the [Paralyzing] skill, the spell had turned into pure lightning instead. The mana-to-damage ratio on the spell outstripped most of what he could do, even, because lightning was a higher tier element than fire.
So a small part of him was in awe, and was recording the details of what had happened for further investigation later.
The rest of him was far more concerned about the fact that while the lightning had brought many of the monsters close to death, it hadn't killed them. The [Paralyze] effect would have been better. This was what he had been trying to avoid.
"Incoming!" Sev shouted, because just as Vex had predicted, the range of the skill had been large, and they now had a huge portion of the horde just running at them. One of them was faster than the others; a level 62 Elite launching itself through the air at impossible speeds straight towards them.
Vex and Sev both tried to call up a barrier, but Derivan was suddenly there, and he used the sheer momentum of the monster's own body against it, bracing his sword against a trio of [Barrier]s and his own body against another three —
— enchanted metal pierced chitin with ease, and where the health of the system would normally have reversed the damage, the monster simply died. The force was still enough to shatter all six barriers, sending him stumbling backwards, and it took effort for him to force the remains of the insectoid off his sword.
"We must run," Derivan said. "We are getting too distracted. They will not end until we stop the source."
Even Misa didn't protest. "We'll take out what we can on the way," she said instead.
It was Derivan that took the lead, this time, functioning as a first line of both offense and defense; Misa was at the rear, positioned so she could see any attacks that were coming in from the sides and block them. Vex and Sev ran side by side between the two, trusting Misa to cover them.
Together, they formed a sort of lance, keeping the weaker members of the team protected while they cut through the monsters that tried to stand in their way — but that didn't mean it was easy.
More than once, Misa had to overextend, blocking two attacks at once in a way that left her panting for breath and exhausting her in a way that couldn't quite be accounted for by stats. More than once, Vex had to rely on [Dagger Proficiency] and his protective barriers to fend off a monster long enough for Derivan or Misa to step in, for there were so many that neither of them could completely block all attacks. Even Sev seemed taxed to his limits, though healing was normally an easy task for him; the gaps between his healing spells grew and grew.
And there was no time limit here, unlike their time in the Nucleus. There was no defensive structure they could build; the barriers they had were instantly destroyed, because these monsters were smart enough to break them.
They needed to make their way to the gate at the other end of the core-space, and it felt like it was further away than ever. It didn't help that the gate was only producing more monsters, and it felt like they were struggling against an endless tide.
"This isn't working," Sev eventually said, his words grim. He was focused despite his words, though, divine magic flowing through him to keep Misa's and Vex's health topped up; at this point, it was more crucial to keep Misa's health high than Vex's, because she sometimes had to block as many as five attacks at once. "We need another plan."
"We don't have anything better," Misa growled out. The metal of her mace clanged against an insectoid blade, the monster letting out a frustrated chitter as it was blocked. "Derivan's lost most of his skills and I'm a defender. Vex—"
"We could do that lightning spell a few more times," Vex said. A complicated spell construct hovered between his hands; he'd switched between a few different spells, now, trying to find one that worked best for the situation. "But I don't want to risk drawing another crowd this big."
If there was just a way to get them all to the gate. But he didn't have any teleportation spells, and they would all far exceed the amount of mana he had to him even if he had; teleports were the type of spell that required mana crystals to fuel. Prodigous as his mana stores and generation was, it wasn't enough to handle teleportation.
If there was just another way...
Derivan's eyes narrowed as two insectoids threw themselves at Vex at once, and the lizardkin watched in barely-disguised awe as the animated armor slipped between them both; for all that they were high-leveled, the chitin they were made of was just that — ordinary chitin.
He didn't slice. He punched, dropping his sword so that he could drive his fist straight into the chitin; insectoid armor cracked in a spiderweb pattern before abruptly caving—
Vex averted his eyes, looking instead at the ground.
And he paused.
If he could reverse the spatial compression on a fireball...
An ordinary [Stone Wall] wouldn't be enough to launch them. But it was a different matter entirely if the ground he was standing on was spatially compressed, and he undid that spatial compression as the ground was rising —
"Actually," Vex said. "I think I have a different idea. Stand close, quick."
The other three glanced at him, looking briefly bewildered — they were having a moment — but didn't actually need much convincing. A [Stone Wall] was, thankfully, a relatively quick spell to cast, and all he needed to do was cut a few runes in the air to disable the spatial compression the same way the lightning storm earlier had.
"Derivan, grab everyone, please," he requested politely, feeling a little foolish even as he said so — but Derivan was the largest of them all, and it was better than the four of them being scattered as they were launched. He squeaked a little as he was pulled close, with Sev on the other side of him and Misa in Derivan's other arm —
"Better be quick, Vex!" Sev called, sounding vaguely panicked.
Stone sprang into existence beneath their feet, tilted towards the gate.
Spatial compression failed as his runes countermanded it, and they were launched, straight towards the void gate.
"VEX GODSDAMMIT I'M AFRAID OF HEIGHTS—"
The monsters looked up, puzzled, as a screaming cleric soared through the air with three others.
It was a momentary distraction. Once the party left their sight, they returned to their original goal — the bright, shining light that called to the anger that burned within them.