Karl saw the smoke rise in the distance.
Mandla had come up with an inspired plan to take the elephant down, one that he’d gotten them all to agree to because of how they each played a vital role.
Stroking Enhörning from atop the rhino’s back, Karl watched and waited as the smoke billowed up to fill that section of sky, spreading like an inkblot in water. Interestingly, the Partition wall became visible as smoke passed through it.
That fire is going to spread so far.
Still, it was a decisive plan that Karl approved of. No matter how impatient he was to get into the fray.
He’d decided not to confront Nicola about leaving him and Enhörning to burn, as he could see this would only end one way. She’d demonstrated how far she was willing to take things, even putting him in a situation where he had to choose between his and Andrew’s lives and the life of his Symbiote.
That had decided the matter as far as Karl was concerned. After the battle, Nicola had to go.
Trudging onwards through the blasted landscape, the group reoriented itself. Minor injuries were healed, what repairs that could be done were, and focus was regained. They all remembered that their main objective remained unfulfilled.
Walking for another half hour, they felt the first stirrings of tension, now fully sobered up from the intoxicating victory. They almost crept, treading with a rising trepidation, as they were coming up a slight incline and could not see what lay ahead. Deep down, however, they knew.
Cresting the small, bald hill, all their worst fears were confirmed. The system was quick to let Mandla know.
|Identified: Local Hegemon – Earthquaker Elephant|
|Identified: Mini-Elite – Mesmer Zebra Stallion|
|Identified: Mini-Elite – Widowmaker Wildebeest|
|Identified: Mini-Elite – Springheel Gazelle|
|Identified: Mini-Elite – Juvenile Panopticon Giraffe|
|Identified: Elite – Juvenile Tree of Life|
It was like they’d stumbled across a secret garden. A staggeringly massive baobab tree, larger even than the elephant, stood tall as an office block, radiating a cool refreshing breeze, its relatively small canopy sheltering genuine green grass in its shade. The behemoth, curiously having only a single tusk, lay next to the tree’s mighty trunk, snaking its own trunk into the large, water filled hollow within the tree and spraying the water out onto the muddy ground around it, where the four Mini-Elites were huddled with a few lucky members of their respective herds.
The giraffe, covered in a set of rapidly opening and closing eyes all over its spotted coat, was badly burned across half its body, and lay directly under the tree next to the elephant. The baobab’s white flowers had reached down and were gently shaking glowing green pollen onto the groaning giraffe, whose wounds were visibly healing wherever the dust-like panacea fell.
They didn’t even get a moment to appreciate the scene however, as the giraffe began barking out an alarm the second they came into view.
Mandla and Nicola reacted in the same instant, him launching his [Assegai] at the weakened giraffe, and Nicola firing a [Bodkin Point] at the poor beast before hitting the tree with two [Flares].
The javelin drilled deep into the giraffe’s burned flank before Nicola’s arrow blew off a chunk out of its neck, silencing its cries. The incendiary arrows broke upon the tree trunk but the fire immediately went out.
|You have slain a Mini-Elite – Juvenile Panopticon Giraffe.|
Then all hell broke loose.
The gazelle, tan with a black stripe running down its side, a white furred underbelly, and comically oversized rear leg muscles, got up from the ground. Its hooves glowed a light yellow and it blurred, disappearing from view. Kaveh instantly summoned his [Scimitar] and…
All Mandla felt was the rush of air as the next thing he knew, sparks were flying as the curved blade clashed with the gazelle’s horns mere inches from his exposed chest. He hadn’t seen either of them move.
Not one to waste the opportunity, Mandla manifested his [Ixwa], stabbing at the beast’s throat, but the gazelle drew back and bounded away in a speedy hopping sprint. Nodding at Kaveh, the assassin ran off after it.
Under the tree, the other animals were reacting as well. The large zebra, its coat a black-and-white kaleidoscope of shifting patterns and shapes, had reared up angrily and was furiously galloping their way, along with the remaining two dozen members of its herd. The dark wildebeest, bigger even than the zebra stallion with a complex, multi-pointed horn network on its head, pawed at the ground and charged them as well, with four dozen of its herd. The giraffes, least in number, arrayed themselves around the elephant, like bodyguards.
Running back to Nicola, Mandla shouted for everyone to form up again. With so many of their pikes broken and not enough Quintessence Points for the [Sappers] to fix them all, they’d shortened them to simple two handed spears, about six feet long, down from the huge fifteen foot pikes they’d been before. They could still effectively fight the beasts. They simply had to maintain cohesion and not let the animals break up the group.
The elephant, standing up with its immense bulk nearly touching the huge tree’s canopy, stamped its foot a single time, and with a flash of quintessence, the ground began to shake. Beneath their feet, a pyramid of earth erupted from the ground right in the centre of the army, splitting everyone apart as youths tumbled down its sides.
Seeing it stand reminded Mandla of just how fucking huge the beast was. He could stab at it all day and his efforts would be like driving a nail into someone’s leg. It would hurt, but they’d be able to kick your ass long before you did any real damage. It just had so much sheer mass.
But that’s why they had a plan.
Mandla grabbed Nicola’s arm, settling behind her on Nikki’s neck as he barked instructions at the Gigglers, while Nicola shot a [Flare] high into the sky, starting the process, before they rode off. He noticed they waited for her approval before acting on them. They really were her Giggling Riders.
Man, Nicola is terrible with these names.
The Riders would split into two groups and intercept the charges, hitting them once, hard, and slowing their momentum enough for one of the Ascendants to try taking out the Mini-Elite. He had to trust Kaveh could eventually take control of the complete disarray behind him.
The elephant wasn’t done, as pillars of earth rose up from the ground one after the other, forcing Nikki to leap and weave her way to the charging beasts. The hyena shot its tail spikes at the huge zebra, just as Nicola fired two [Broadheads] aimed to cut it to pieces.
The galloping zebra’s mane lit up with an internal glow as the patterns on its hide shifted faster and faster, until the world seemed to stretch and distor-
Nicola had just slapped him!
“Don’t look at the zebra, idiot. Mesmer is literally in the name.”
Damn, she’s right.
“Never do that again.”
She just rolled her eyes and parked her hyena facing the other way, tail towards the charging striped menace. And just sat there.
“Nicola what the fuck? This is not the plan.”
“Relax, think of this as an alternate route to the next step.”
The Riders and riderless hyenas both all came and oriented themselves the same way, before, just as the charge was about to overrun them, they all unleashed their quills, filling the sky with a cloud of enhanced keratin bolts.
The zebras were utterly devastated. Nikki in particular activated a skill with made all her javelin-like heavy duty quills target the hypnotising stallion, and with a shiver, they flew, punching several holes in the shrieking Mini-Elite. The rest of the zebras lay dead on the field, riddled by the hyenas’ coordinated attack.
How the fuck?
“When the fuck did you practice this? You know what, no, we’ll do this afterwards.”
He wanted to question more but the damn hyena’s tail would only be free of spikes for so long and he’d just heard the elephant’s heavy footfalls. It was on the move. Now they had to-
Sparks flew in front of him once more as Kaveh intercepted the gazelle’s horns quivering two inches from his face, startling everyone. The gazelle snorted before bouncing off again, Kaveh loudly grumbling after it.
Jeeeesus, thank fuck for Kaveh.
He turned to Mandla before running off.
“Eyes. Inside of the mouth. Very dimly at the top of its head.”
Mandla nodded after him, calculating and recalibrating.
This might actually work.
Nicola shot off a few [Broadheads] that chased after the flighty beast, but it literally just outran them, leading them in circles until they dissipated into golden flakes, quintessence expended.
Kaveh was obviously still busy containing the gazelle Mini-Elite, which meant the army wasn’t organising under his tactical mind, if at all. Mandla knew he had to get over there.
Clambering over Nikki’s newly bald back, he settled just before her tail, secured himself, and the hyena tore off towards the other side of the battle. Which was going much, much poorer.
The wildebeest charge had managed to burst through the hyenas attempt to stop them by sheer momentum and had unfortunately made contact with the disorganised army. As he watched, the huge wildebeest, using a skill, grabbed one of the Riders off of her mount with a prehensile length of its beard and viciously impaled her on one of its horns as she wailed for help. There were several other Legends stuck up there already, some, including Jacob, trying to hack away at the horn, some loudly praying, two hanging limp as blood streamed down the horns onto the beast’s unforgiving face.
The wildebeests were catching people alone or in small groups, surrounding them, and goring them from multiple sides. The especially unlucky were caught running and trampled to death in an unrelenting storm of hooves. Andrew and a few other Legends had desperately rallied others to help them form a united front, but just as they gathered a semblance of cohesion, the elephant decided to move.
Nikki raced towards the action as the elephant arrived among the gathered youths.
Oh god no.
It raised a foot and squashed a screaming boy under it, his chilling cries abruptly shutting off with a wet crunch. It grabbed a Support, snaked its trunk all around him and squeezed, letting him ooze out from between the coils, before slapping the flesh pile that remained on the ground.
Stomping its foot once more, a fissure opened up in front of it, swallowing three Classless whole. All the while earthen pillars were rising and falling around it, making the ground so unstable no one could run far. For their part, the giraffes were kicking at anyone who tried to hit the Hegemon.
Nicola was trying her best to hit the oversized beast with arrows but its tough hide was impervious to everything she threw at it, so she switched targets, setting the Widowmaker’s mane on fire, then getting a [Bodkin Point] through one of its knees. The huge wildebeest squealed and limped back to the baobab’s healing aura, inadvertently keeping those on its torture rack horns alive.
Coming up near the rampaging elephant now, Nicola shot the giraffes standing guard on their side, sending [Bodkin Points] straight into their hearts. Mandla, now feeling he was close enough, gave Nicola the signal. He braced himself, and jumped off Nikki’s back, onto her tail, then the powerful beast flexed, launching Mandla into the air.
He flailed a bit before smacking into the elephant’s back, scraping his face against the rough skin.
Ha, bullseye! Well almost.
He scrambled up the remaining distance to stand atop the huge beast’s back. It was like a massive grey platform. He could see so far from up here, kilometres into the distance. And all of it was burnt to ash.
A stab of guilt struck him as shook his head, returning to the mission. He ran up the elephant’s back, occasionally tripping as he made his way towards its head.
How does something so big even move so fast?
Summoning his [Iwisa], he thought he could see the spot Kaveh had told him about. At the top of the head, near the back. It was covered in the same armoured skin as every other part of its body, but crucially, skin met bone here. There was no thick flesh to dampen, say, a concussive blast.
Reaching back to load up, Mandla unleashed a huge two-handed swing of his mace, ringing the elephant’s skull like a bell. It was stunned into immobilisation, hopefully giving those below some breathing room.
Mandla fell to his knees, manifesting his [Ixwa] and trying his hardest to dig through the grey leathery hide to pierce its spine, to no avail. The elephant recovered from the impact quickly, stretching its trunk above its head. The spearman ran, only just getting caught by his foot.
The elephant, now with a hold on his ankle, crushed it in its grip before whipping him off at speed. Grunting with pain, Mandla reached out with his spear and just managed to nick the elephant’s ear as he zoomed past. Just that little perforation was enough for the weapon to kick its hunger into overdrive, more active than he’d ever seen it before. Just that little bite was enough for the weapon to vacuum up a fat chunk of the elephant’s quintessence, a chunk Mandla could feel very distinctly from his own energy. It sat there, slowly, ever so slowly, merging with him.
He didn’t even get the chance to think about it before he crashed into the ground, rapidly healing but still unable to walk. The elephant didn’t let up, as it stomped a foot in his direction, opening up a fissure headed straight for him.
Grimacing, he got up and limped away, but the fissure turned and followed him. Preparing to jump to one side, he braced himself, but luckily the fissure stopped just at his feet.
Coincidentally, a portion of the energy he’d just stolen poofed away right at that moment.
Holy shit, no way.
Did what he think jus-
Instantly manifesting his [Iwisa], he didn’t even try to hit the beast, simply slapping the head with his hand. The concussive blast activated, violently shoving both Kaveh and the gazelle away from him.
The gazelle wobbled on shaky legs as Kaveh woozily held his head.
“Shit dude, warn me next tim-”
He was stunned into silence as Mandla angrily leapt on the confused gazelle and swung hard at its head. The hapless beast’s skull was completely pulverised, dashing its brains across the green grass.
|You have slain a Mini-Elite – Springheel Gazelle.|
Seeing Nicola racing up beside them, the boys hopped onto Nikki’s back and rejoined the fray. Mandla inner suspicion was confirmed as the behemoth tried erecting pillars and walls to block them, but every time they crumbled to nothing just before Nikki hit them, going along with some of Mandla’s stolen energy.
This was… huge.
He asked Nicola to start weaving around the pillars instead of through them, as it was getting expended rapidly and he wanted to try piercing the elephant’s hide again. He had a feeling it would go differently this time.
Still, he couldn’t experiment too much. There was still a battle going on and they were on a timer. This new revelation had changed things but that was no reason not to continue with the plan. Now, he just had a backup if the plan failed.
With a reignited confidence, he shuffled to the back preparing to make the jump once more. This time, he’d make it count.
Three, two, o-
What the fuck?
The elephant had… spoken?