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Unfortunately for the tree, Caesar needed all the corpses. To deny other animals from this safe zone and clear the path for his ants to reign, there must be no compromise. Thus, he put perk points into Pharaoh Blessed and Cobra Strike to fell the oak.

[Pharaoh Blessed (S)]: A very rare ability that provides the user with reduced damage taken and a powerful shield. Ability use is barely visible. Shield begins to repair itself once health is full.

- It also provides a weaker aura that reduces damage taken for all designated entities within the aura and grants them a barrier. Damage resistance has no entity limit. Barrier protection is limited to ten entities.

- Afflicts all enemies with the Curse of Bindings who attack any barrier. All present curses on hostiles in the aura intensify when the user’s shield is broken. All curses on hostiles are permanent unless the cursed leave the aura’s range.

[Perk Option 1 – Elemental Shield]: Both shield and barriers gain resistance to a specified natural element, requiring contact with a material imbued with that element.

This was a decent option to gain resistance against the Stormheart Oak. Two sources of damage reduction with a barrier meant the ants could likely survive three, or even four lightning strikes before dying. But there were better options for future fights, and he believed this option excessive.

[Perk Option 2 – Deflection]: Both shield and barriers can occasionally deflect projectiles, reducing its damage.

Not bad. Although it would fail more often in smaller skirmishes, it’d still reduce the damage taken by his ants in the long battles he expected to face if he ever decided to besiege Order of the Fox strongholds. However, it needed his hippo to remain in plain sight during the battle. He skipped it.

[Perk Option 3 – Reflection]: Both shield and barriers can reflect a projectile that would shatter the protection, once per day.

This provided Caesar’s forces with a trump card against archers or spellcasters with a preference on their projectiles. He liked this option. It was much more reliable for smaller fights and could turn the tide if the enemy didn’t expect it. If explosive projectiles like those from Magnus were reflected, they’d do nothing.

He chose Reflection, put two more points into his hippo’s Magic to thirty-two, and looked at his Bone Elemental’s three perk options.

[Cobra Strike (B)]: A facet that hastens the user and lets them unleash a lethal strike at the enemy’s vitals. All types of venom belonging to the user are amplified for the strike. Haste lingers for a few moments after use. Cooldown is fifteen minutes.

[Perk Option 1 – Twin Strike]: Cobra Strike accumulates two charges at one time, usable in quick succession.

In short battles, this option helped a lot. Two flurries of amplified venom spikes could slaughter fields of unarmored animals, and two venomous bites could possibly bring down even elephants. But the other options were just as powerful.

[Perk Option 2 – Lunge]: Before Cobra Strike’s effect triggers, the user may dash in a single direction.

Lunge was a good choice. It made assassinations easier since his Bone Elemental could spring from its hiding spot and sink its fangs into Caesar’s current foe. Repositioning, retreating, and reengaging would become a tempting option to control the field of battle.

[Perk Option 3 – Puncture]: Attacks during Cobra Strike’s effect have an increased piercing effect.

Without hesitation, he picked this option. It alleviated the most important weakness of his Bone Elemental – armored foes. Now, perhaps even rank two armor, or bark, could not stop its fangs. After putting two more stat points into its Agility, he looked at the tree and smiled.

The Stormheart Oak had begun shaking its branches in an attempt to threaten his ants into leaving after it called down the lightning strikes. By now, it had grown impatient, and another series of attacks were brewing in the skies. They lanced downwards and obliterated the earth around several groups of ants in the area, disintegrating them. Those with barriers managed to live, albeit heavily scorched. Another barrage of bolts fell and finished them off.

But although its power was high, its intelligence was not up to par. Instead of attacking the true leader of all the ants, or even the Queensguard, it only attacked those with their mandibles near flesh. And its attacks had a cooldown as well; it took well over a minute before another lightning barrage came.

The ants dug deep swathes into the earth, targeting the tree’s roots. Caesar walked around the outskirts of the area. He eyed it for a possible weakness, a breach in its bark, or an access point to the heart that lay inside. The tree was much too gigantic to fall from simple force alone. He had to target its weakness.

As his ants ripped out a large, wooden tendril-root crackling with lightning, the tree shook its branches, and the safe zone began to recede. Rain poured into the area, softening the earth to slow the ants down. A barrier snapped around Caesar, shielding his eyes from the water.

Lightning struck again, blasting another dozen or so ants from existence. But the call for more reinforcements had sounded long ago, and twice the current number swarmed in to join their brethren in the assault. Another few roots snapped. The tree quivered. Whether in panic or in rage, Caesar could not tell, but what he did spot excited him. An area on its bark had begun to throb, and he ordered his two summons to attack.

The hippo trudged near the area he discovered, followed by the Bone Elemental who stayed far behind. After another series of lightning strikes had fallen, they struck. The bark withered, then decayed. His hippo rammed the area he had specified, then tore chunks of wood out.

As it drew closer and closer to the tree’s heart, it shivered in fright and exploded in a shower of sparks, cascading outwards in a circular ring. The energy clung to the party’s bodies and shredded their protections yet failed to destroy them completely. Caesar backed off. He could do nothing at this point except rely on his Bone Elemental to finish the kill.

With corroded bark and weakened defenses, another barrage of lightning was the only form of retaliation the tree could muster. Another group of ants died, but fortunately, the Queensguard had fled long ago. A second lightning ring eliminated even more. The hundred-strong group of ants dwindled down to only about a dozen. Fortunately, the hippo had exposed a small, beating object in the middle of the tree, allowing the bone horror access.

It slithered close and struck with haste, piercing weak points in the bark before sinking its teeth into the tree. The Bone Elemental snapped back, smoke coming from its skull, and retreated with a pile of wood in its mouth as the Stormheart Oak began to visibly wither away. The rain continued to pour. Its branches swept from side to side, then slowed. The lightning around its treetops died down, disappeared, and a black wisp rose to confirm the kill.

Stormheart Oak: Rare

Level 25: 50 Free Stat Points, 1 Perk Points

Ability: Stormbringer (A) – Rank 2

  • Facet: Guide the Storm (B)

Talents: Stormheart, Lightning Resistance, Gigantism

Skills: Aeromancy – Shock Nova

Mana: 100

Strength: 11

Dexterity: 7

Vitality: 17

Magic: 17

Willpower: 13

Spirit: 11

[Stormbringer (A)]: An ability that gathers lightning elemental energy in the area, slowly generating a constant lightning storm accompanied by rain. As long as the ability is kept active, the storm will remain. If the ability is toggled off or the user takes critical damage, the storm will rapidly disappear.

  • A safe zone may be created in the area, free from lightning and rain. The zone may move slightly.

[Guide the Storm (B)]: A facet that guides lightning energy in the area to strike at a specific position. Excessive use may cause a noticeable lack of lightning energy, reducing the damage of the attacks until facet use becomes impossible.

[Stormheart]: A talent that generates lightning elemental energy passively, bolstering the power of the user’s spells and abilities from that type and surrounding them with a protective field.

[Lightning Resistance]: A talent that grants resistance to lightning.

He looked up at the skies and unsummoned his hippo, who had taken much damage from the Shock Nova, and replaced it with his new tree. Although it immediately activated its ability, the storm had already diminished by more than half.

Before unsummoning it for good, Caesar discovered he couldn’t summon the oak inside spaces already occupied by another object. He tried a corpse, a tree, a bush, and a living ant, but none of his attempts succeeded. No, the tree needed an entire empty field large enough to materialize, then manually plunged its roots deep into the ground to maintain itself. But since it was too late to salvage the storm, he unsummoned it again and walked away.

The Bone Elemental dropped its spoils into the palm of Caesar’s hand. He inspected it for damages and smiled, satisfied.

[Item]: Heart of Storms – Rank 2

[Rarity]: Rare

[Effects]: A material imbued with lightning, or a catalyst for rank 1 abilities.

With the tree fallen and the loot secured, it was time to leave the dungeon. Although the wood was only Common, it was still imbued with lightning energies and might provide a nice surprise in the future. He took a few branches with him.

Normally, the ants would return to the nest before distributing the loot amongst themselves. But with Alta’s Deciphering talent and the Queensguard’s control over its fellow ants, Caesar could override that behavior. He told a pair of rank two Ripjaw Ant Soldiers to consume an acorn each and watched the process.

Lightning burst forth from inside their bodies. A burnt smell filled the air, but they still twitched. One opened his mouth and spat out a few sparks, while the other shook uncontrollably for a few seconds before recovering. It was good that he hadn’t given them Rare catalysts to consume: their bodies might not survive. Although there were methods to ease the process, like with his Essence Crown, they could be quite rare.

Most of the ants remained behind to carry everything back, but the Queensguard continued onwards with his party. As usual, he sent his Bone Elemental ahead as a scout and followed behind with Alta.

------

The Bone Elemental slithered forwards, its head swiveling as it listened to the sounds around it. Suddenly, a light flashed nearby and washed over its profile. It knew danger, and tried to leave, but four people, silent as mist, immediately rushed out of the woods and attacked. One had a mace, another an axe, and the third a sword.

It activated Viper Strike and hurled a torrent of bone spikes at its foes, perforating the axeman and swordsman in the front before continuing to flee. But that hadn't secured its escape. Before falling to the ground, the two had thrown a series of objects at it, turning the ground into mud and unleashing entangling vines that felt like iron.

It struggled to break free, writhing, biting, and tearing at its chains. The bone shards whirling around it had almost broken through half when it heard rapid footsteps approach. "There, there, and there," it heard a deep voice say. It did not understand, and its last thoughts were of its lord as numerous blows shattered its spine and crumbled its body into dust and nothingness.

------

[Notice]: Your Bone Elemental has died.

“What?” Caesar shouted. He summoned his hippo. The urgency forced him to rush forwards into danger and confront the enemies before they left, while Alta rushed close by under the cover of foliage, ready to interfere at any moment.

A man cloaked in red stood over empty air, frowning at his two poisoned underlings who lay on the floor with their bodies slack. His third and final guard hovered over his compatriots, attempting to heal them with healing potions, but only delaying the inevitable.

He looked over at Caesar and spat out an insult. ”Come to meet your masters, cultist?”

Me, a cultist? Rage bubbled up inside him and he gritted his teeth. Although he wanted nothing more than to kill them, he realized this was a crucial chance to receive information.

“What? I-I just heard a noise and came running!”

The man began casting a spell, glowing with the light of Divination. It washed over Caesar and revealed nothing suspicious, while brushing over his Doppelganger entirely. Yet the man still narrowed his eyes and said, “Although you have not harmed one of us, you’re still coming with me.” His guard stood up, silent, hands trembling, and picked up his mace from the ground.

“Okay…just don’t hurt me.” He put his hands up and walked towards them. Suddenly, Alta attacked. Her claws ripped through the man’s throat, and she flickered out of vision again. The diviner stepped back, shocked, and tried to cast another spell to reveal the threat. She interrupted him again and again, using lethal blows to distract, but he dodged each as if guided by some unforeseen hand.

That almost reminds me of Arnold…

Caesar lunged for the man with the mace, ramming his dagger into the man’s wrist. The hippo poked its head out and cursed the mace-wielder with impotence, giving its summoner the upper hand.

With the momentum on his side, Caesar knocked his opponent onto the ground and rained his fists down onto his face. He wrenched the mace out from flailing hands and smashed it down and down and down until the body ceased to move again. After a harsh exhale, he staggered back and calmed himself down before gazing at the next man to die.

Alta had not finished her fight yet. But her Presence-enhanced speed gave the enemy no room to retaliate, allowing him to pick up his halberd-turned-spear from a bush and intervene. As the enemy’s movements slowed, their attacks began to graze, and the man was forced to slip his fingers down his side. He seemed panicked and distracted, groping around nervously for his savior.

Caesar used the chance to throw three of his eight Soulsear coins. Although small and barely visible, the man still tried to dodge them, thereby making a major mistake. Alta’s claws subsequently ripped through the man’s robes and tore him open.

With his dagger, he ended the lives of the two poisoned men on the ground, receiving his bounty.

[Notice]: Congratulations! You have leveled up to Level 25! +2 Free Stat Points, +1 Perk Point

He put his two free stat points into Willpower, pushing it to twenty-one. These Fox Cultists were becoming stronger and stronger, and resisting those with greater proficiency in their illusions was necessary.

He then looked at their four torsos and breastbones. All had similar fox brands – two tails, but their leader had three. Why did they call me the cultist? Was it the Bone Elemental? His eyes widened a little at the implications. Presumably, another rival faction was present in this new area – and they used horrors as their minions.

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A note from Zetomil

Current Minions:

Max, Level 0 Gray Wolf

Level 20 Skeleton Mage - Rank 1 Artillery Magic

Level 24 Tomb Hippopotamus - Rank 2 Pharaoh Blessed, Mummify

Level 25 Doppelganger - Rank 2 Illusory Veil, Masquerade (Fused Uncommon and Rare Essences of Humanity)

Level 23 Ripjaw Ant Queen - Rank 2 Elite Swarm Specialization, Berserker Pheromones (Fused Rapids Octopus)

Level 25 Kelpie - Rank 2 Terrain Traversal, Freshwater Rejuvenation

Level 25 Stormheart Oak - Rank 2 Stormbringer, Guide the Storm

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Zetomil

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