It was by no means a simple job, infiltrating that place. Deep in Republic territory, built into the side of a ravine, and with precisely one way in or out, which was as heavily guarded as it could get. These were but some of the reasons why nobody went in or out of Bitterhold without the warden’s say-so. However, no security system was perfect, and no stronghold was truly impenetrable.
This was something Edge demonstrated quite expertly when she infiltrated the prison at the onset of the Cataclysm Conflict. She was sent there to scout out the place at a time when the massacre at Fort Yimin had yet to happen, and the Empire’s top brass thought their victory on that front secure. They imagined they’d be moving on those mines immediately afterwards, so sending an advanced scout seemed like a good idea at the time. But while Edge did manage to sneak in, she very quickly learned that getting out of Bitterhold was the truly challenging task.
One which she failed to perform.
Stain and her thralls had effortlessly captured her the instant her presence was detected. With the overmind slime’s help, the Foundation expedited the Attitude Adjuster treatments to turn the half-elf assassin into an unwilling sleeper agent. It was a rushed job, but they successfully managed to do it in a matter of days rather than months. They programmed her to feed them valuable information, implanted some false memories and bad intel to pass onto her masters and sent her back to them. And since Edge herself was blissfully unaware of her duplicitous nature, both Edward’s ultimate lie detector and Hook’s mind-reading failed to pin her down as the security leak.
Frankly speaking, the whole thing was a gamble on the Foundation’s part. So many things could have failed and the endeavor had the potential to blow up in their faces in spectacular ways. But none of that happened, and the ploy had paid off big time. There were, however, some defects in the conditioning, as the information Edge passed on was sometimes irrelevant or incomplete. Like how she warned the elves of the Gilded Hand’s raid on Azurvale, yet failed to mention the full extent of their fielded forces.
After considering all the options, the Foundation decided it would be in their best interest to quit while they were ahead, though not before playing their ace in the hole one final time.
Which was how Bandit wound up with a dagger in his skull, and his niece found herself lying face down in the mud with a killer headache and no idea of what was going on. She tried to get up, but almost immediately noticed her uncle’s unmoving body, with her favorite knife sticking out of his jaw. She never got the chance to process the implications of this deeply disturbing scene. Her aching head was filled with a griffin’s cry, followed by a massive, powerful beak ripping into her midsection. Lightning flowed through the beast’s mouth and into the thoroughly confused woman before it violently ripped her in half.
Needless to say, she did not survive the ordeal.
As for the other griffin, it had already charged at and scattered the enemy line. Though enraged by its master’s death, the beast had no doubt of who was truly responsible for it. Griffins were intelligent creatures, smart enough to recognize speech and perceive personality traits. Somewhere in the back of their minds, they deduced the pink slime and the ones standing with her were responsible for this turn of events. It was the only explanation for why their master would have died at the hands of one he cared for like his own offspring.
Which, incidentally, greatly enraged both of the majestic beasts. One would think monsters would be glad to have been freed from captivity, but these were griffins. They were bred, taught and trained to serve a single human, so the only thing at the forefront of these two brothers’ minds was to avenge their ‘father.’ Which was why the one called Fluffles had just crushed Edge, and why it followed its brother’s example and charged at the menagerie of monsters in front of it.
It let out a terrifying screech and lunged forward, swinging its gigantic talon at the big red thing. Kora stepped into the incoming swipe and slammed as many fists as she could into the griffin’s ankle joint. Rather than parrying or blocking, it was more like she was attacking the beast’s limb. Her actions did little to disperse or redirect the force behind the blow, resulting in a mutual exchange that sent her flying into a nearby castle wall while nearly breaking the griffin’s foreleg.
Fluffles let out a cry of anger and pain at its leg injury, and Boxxy took this opportunity to leap at the thing’s neck and drive a duo of enchanted swords into it. The griffin hopped backwards with speed that belied its massive body, though the magic blades remained embedded halfway into its neck muscles. There was a flash of light as Fizzy used Lightning Warp to appear in the air directly in front of it. She swung her wrench at one of the sword’s handles, striking it and driving it deeper inside like a hammer would a nail. However, momentarily suspended in the air as she was, this left her in a position where she could neither dodge nor defend.
Mist did not fail to take advantage of opportunity and blasted her with a Spell. He was the one who stood the best chance at taking down that shiny juggernaut, so he made sure to focus his attention on her. The ray of concentrated frost hit the golem head-on, doing a considerable bit of damage and temporarily immobilizing her. However, before he could continue the assault, Question kindly informed him through Hook’s telepathy that there was a Meteor falling towards his position.
The jack-of-all trades magic user then unleashed an advanced gravity Spell, diverting the flow of gravity in the sky above him. This severely altered the trajectory of Xera’s ball of molten rock, redirecting it towards where Stain and Hook were having a psych-off. The Psionic kept the slime’s attention by bombarding her with rocks and debris via his telekinetic abilities while she returned fire with poison clouds and acid sprays. It was something of a stalemate since blunt force trauma was largely useless against a slime, and toxins were easily stopped by magical barriers. The equilibrium was broken abruptly when the stray Meteor landed between them with a thunderous crash, momentarily putting a pause to their fight. Hook was clear of the impact zone way ahead of time, but the slime had to surge backwards to avoid it, only to have part of her catch fire anyway.
Edward then leapt through the resulting smoke and flames, delivering a series of pinpoint strikes with his dagger at the distracted slime, destroying a total of six of Stain’s cores. The slimy sovereign wailed in response and and tried to nail him with a Mind Blast, but the former Spymaster hit her with a Silencing Gaze. This Spy Skill’s intended function was to keep people from calling for help, but it was also quite handy in preventing the chanting of Spells. He exploited her moment of confusion by eliminating another two cores. He could’ve went for more, but was forced to use Shadowstep to vanish in a puff of smoke in order to avoid Boxxy’s Power Shot.
The Mimic growled in dissatisfaction as it lost track of its main target yet again. Tagging Edward with Hunter’s Mark allowed the monster to be aware of the man’s rough position, but his Obfuscate Skill made it difficult to pinpoint his location. Which, at present time, seemed to be on the other side of the battlefield. As expected of the Empire’s most dangerous spy and saboteur, he was exceptionally slippery. To make matters worse, he also had excellent awareness of his surroundings. His ability to spot Boxxy’s surprise attacks was so uncanny that it was almost like he had eyes on the back of-
Wait, that’s it! Boxxy exclaimed inwardly. No wonder why that guy is missing!
The dossiers it recovered from Edge via Slimeface spoke of a man called Question, a blond Lightbinder with magic that allowed him to observe battlefields remotely. The Gilded Hand also had a gifted Psionic who could enable a telepathic link similar to the one the shapeshifter shared with its familiars. Taking all of this into account, the only explanation for Question’s absence from this ‘all hands on deck’ situation was because he was he was remotely directing his comrades. It would certainly explain why these humans were so well coordinated, despite Boxxy’s best efforts to confuse and befuddle them.
“Claws! Stop messing with that griffin and check for surveillance magic above us!”
The webstalker and the archfiend were currently keeping the royal griffin called Puff busy. The arachnid was doing her best to bind its wings and feet while the meathead delivered one leaping attack after the other, all aimed at its face and head. Having received her new orders, Drea cast her many eyes skyward while still clinging to the enormous beast’s back.
The first thing she saw was Xera toying with Zone. For all her ridiculous strength, speed and fighting prowess, the Monk was having a difficult time landing a hit on the djinn. Between the demon’s extremely lifelike illusions, invisibility and intangible mist form, the angel’s attacks ended up hitting nothing but air. That said, Xera’s fire magic wasn’t faring much better either. Her opponent was extremely proficient at not getting hit by Spells, either by dodging them entirely or swatting them away with her heavily enchanted staff. Long-range magic was a major weakness of the Monk Job, so it was only natural she’d trained and geared herself to defend against it.
What Drea was looking at, however, was located much higher than either of the two women. Her Detect Magic Skill combined with her webstalker eyesight to reveal the presence of a massive and otherwise invisible eye-shaped enchantment hovering above the courtyard. After relaying her discovery to Boxxy, she was ordered to track the thing to its source and eliminate Question. She wasn’t sure she could do it since this whole ‘seeing magic’ thing was still relatively new to her, but she would certainly give it her best shot, even without being ordered to do so.
The spider-demon-girl leaped off the webbed up griffin’s back, cloaking herself with Clear Ice and slipping away from the battlefield. With the bug-like nuisance gone, the beast let out a half-screech half-roar as flames poured out of its mane, burning away the Steel Thread. Unlike his brother, who was a thunderhead griffin capable of conjuring lightning at will, Puff was a flamewreath griffin with fire-based magic. That troublesome bug kept dispelling its Immolation Aura every time it tried to burn it off, but with her gone, it could now really run wild.
Or at least that was its intent, but Stain had other ideas.
Her mental magic rocked the beast’s brain, causing it to stumble and stagger.
Kora used this opportunity to produce a sonic shockwave by slapping all three pairs of hands together at once. It washed over the stunned beast, instantly putting out its flames. Stain, who had already split herself in two equal parts, then threw one of her selves at the griffin. The pink sludge would’ve splashed against its head if not for Zone, who swooped in and batted away the semi-solid slime missile.
She wasn’t sure what this weird pink puddle was trying to do with that attempt, but it certainly wouldn’t have been good. Thankfully Question saw it coming and had Hook take over as Xera’s dance partner, making this quasi-divine intervention possible. The reason he did that was simple - even with Bandit gone, those royal griffins were still on the Gilded Hand’s side, so providing cover for them was a logical choice. Also a slightly emotional one, as he did not wish to see the man’s legacy besmirched by someone with such obviously foul intentions like Stain.
It was therefore an awful shame that the expended effort was immediately proven to have been all for naught.
A thick beam of bright blue energy tore through the air with a loud buzzing noise. It hit the still dazed Puff in the throat, making its head explode like a filthy firework. The once-mighty beast’s body twitched a few more times before it collapsed on the spot with a thunderous noise, blood spewing from its mutilated neck stump.
Some twenty meters away, Fizzy made an audible impact of her own as she fell over backwards. The strangely cone-shaped Gnomish Death Ray in her hands had performed admirably by eliminating the troublesome beast in one shot. However, though frighteningly powerful, the Artifact-grade weapon was also horribly unbalanced. Not only was it woefully inaccurate, but it also had a kick like a pissed off wyvern. The metal golem was actually aiming at Zone, but hit the house-sized beast instead.
That was by no means the gadget’s biggest problem though. The weapon charged itself by attaching a series of hooked cables to the user’s arm, shoulder and chest, then siphoning off a significant portion of HP and MP. It also had a tendency to backfire, which was precisely why Fizzy’s body was temporarily paralyzed. Her Lightning Affinity and metallic body prevented her from taking additional damage from the malfunction, but it would be a short while before she was able to move.
Bloknalthoz, who had been mostly acting as Mist’s bodyguard and meat shield so far, immediately moved to take advantage of the golem’s moment of weakness. The massive axe-wielding fiend leapt over forty meters through the air with a shout of ‘Sky Splitter’ and was poised to bring his weapon down right on top of Fizzy’s chest. The Martial Art he was using had allowed him to cleave through both mithril armor and metal golems in the past, but he’d never tried it on a target that was both of those at once. The demon’s blood momentarily boiled with excitement, as he was very eager to find out which was stronger - his axe or Fizzy’s frame.
Unfortunately for the fiend, he never got the chance to satisfy his curiosity thanks to a massive spiked steel ball that smashed into his side while he was still in mid-air. It knocked him off course, causing him to miss his target completely. He landed on the ground hard, but quickly regained his footing with a shoulder roll, ready to resume his assault on the immobilized golem. Except that the steel sphere from earlier had unfurled itself into a half-box, half-spider, half-doppelganger that was pointing a skull-tipped staff directly at his face.
The monster and a half unleashed a wave of pure force, which had been massively amplified by Power Overwhelming. Dirt, mud, rocks, flowers, grass and demons - everything before the monstrous Warlock was swept away in an instant, digging out a conical trench in the castle courtyard. Boxxy hopped back towards Fizzy’s position and quickly secured her inside its Storage so she could recover. It was unfortunate the Gnomish Death Ray malfunctioned, but the two of them had tested the device extensively in the days leading up to today and were fully aware of the risks involved. The radiant Paladin would be out of commission for several minutes, but at least she managed to permanently eliminate a high-value enemy target without getting injured, so it was hardly the worst possible outcome.
“Boss, you have incoming!”
Boxxy still had itself to worry about though, as it would appear Zone was charging towards it with an attitude that could only be described as a ‘murder boner.’ The Monk didn’t even attempt that flying swing of hers and instead opted for a combination of fast strikes upon her landing. She was already sufficiently warmed up and completely ‘in the zone,’ so her barrage of strikes, kicks, swipes and thrusts gave Boxxy no opportunity to attack.
However, unlike their last bout, the Mimic was not pretending anymore. Just as Zone wished, it was giving her its full, undivided attention as it expertly dodged and evaded each of those attacks. Its bizarre body moved in ways that only a shapeshifter could, making it extremely difficult for the angelic Monk to corner it. She had extensive combat experience, but it was her first time fighting a shapeshifter as exceptional as Boxxy.
The monster further demonstrated its talent at body sculpting by growing an array of ten extra arms out of its back, each of them holding a grenade or a Spell Crystal of some kind. It released all of those at once, aiming both at and around its opponent. Zone responded magnificently by swatting away the vast majority of dangerous objects before they could arm and/or detonate. The area around the two was covered in all manner of explosions, gases and magics, creating a veritable storm of chaos with Boxxy and Zone at its eye. Though the Monk was too focused on the enemy in front of her to acknowledge it, the childish grin on her face made it abundantly clear how excited she was.
Which, ironically enough, was not proper behavior for a Monk. Many of their Skills, especially those requiring Ki manipulation, demanded a great deal of concentration. This required a still mind free of distracting thoughts, which Zone was having trouble maintaining at the moment. And in her zeal, she completely failed to notice that one of the objects Boxxy had thrown at her was not a piece of solidified magic or a metal canister, but an extremely fragile alchemical vial. She smashed through it with her staff on reflex, causing the milky white concoction contained within to spill out on top of her. This Slyth family secret formula was a powerful instantaneous adhesive, which glued one of Zone’s hands to her weapon and one of her feet to the ground.
Yet this did not serve to immobilize the rampaging angel as well as Boxxy had hoped. The woman’s absurd strength ripped the skin off her palms when she adjusted her grip while also tearing out a lump of soil and grass when she lifted her foot. It did not stop her, but it still slowed her down enough to give Boxxy the opening it needed. In the blink of an eye, it drove the Reverb Sword it obtained during its last dungeon dive into her exposed right shoulder. The bronze-mithril alloy of the ‘Spell slicer’ magnificently pierced through the unfocused layer of Ki protecting her skin, inflicting the first serious injury she had gotten today.
It was still relatively shallow, however, as she reflexively clenched her absurdly dense and hard muscles, stopping the sword before it could sink deep enough to do any serious damage. It was also the only blow this weapon would deal, as Zone snapped the blade in half with a single motion of her other arm. Though it had mithril in its construction, the bronze part of the weapon’s construction made it surprisingly brittle. Still, having even half a blade sticking out of her torso made it hard to move around as she pleased, allowing Boxxy to escape her reach with all its might.
The Monk wordlessly pulled the remnants of the broken sword out and prepared to chase after it, but the angel’s previous dance partner wasn’t quite as done with her as Zone would’ve liked.
Much like how her fellow demon had attempted earlier, Kora dropped in with an aerial assault. She tried to plant both of her heels on top of Zone’s head, but the angel dodged the attempt with a backflip. The archfiend’s attack hit only dirt, making yet another small crater in the Watford castle gardens. The archfiend did not stop to contemplate her failure though, as she instantly turned around to strike at her target.
Indeed, given how she seamlessly she transition into assaulting Zone with a flurry of fists, it was almost as if she expected that heel drop to miss.
“Ora! Ora! Ora!”
The human she was trying to fight was naturally quite displeased at this development.
“Ora ora ora ora!”
She wanted to do battle against someone worthy of her mettle, not this brainless meathead who clearly had no idea what she was doi-
Zone suddenly found herself without the luxury of time to silently berate her opponent. Though she had little difficulty deflecting the many-armed Berserker’s seemingly random punches during their first encounter, this time around it was clearly different. And not just because she was only using the arms on her left side. Or rather, it was precisely because of that. Each successive blow had more focus and intent in it than the last, allowing the motions to steadily become shorter and more compact. This, in turn, allowed the demon’s spiked knuckles to fly towards Zone’s face with increasing velocity and frequency.
Rather than her usual rain of boulders, these punches were more like repeated hammer strokes. At this point in time Kora was almost like a blacksmith trying to pummel a stubborn piece of metal into submission. Her current behavior was so radically different from the first time Zone fought her that the angel was momentarily taken aback. Her Disciple of War Skill had not completely adapted to the new opponent either. Under such circumstances, it was only natural the Monk would find herself overwhelmed. Even with her Spirit Guardian active and deflecting as many of the blows as possible, those metal fists began connecting with her head, body and chest region within seconds. The unrelenting assault gradually loosened up the Monk until she was starting to resemble Kora’s punching bag, at which point the fiend finally unleashed her unbridled strength.
The demon let out a powerful yell as she put all of her weight and strength behind two of her right fists. The armored knuckles collided cleanly with Zone’s face, sending her flying backwards. The Monk flew backwards and skid across the ground for a few meters before managed to steady herself by unfurling her golden wings. She looked at the red-skinned woman with a cold glare, though its severity was somewhat diminished by the two fist-shaped imprints on her cheek and forehead.
“How ya like me now, bandage-boobs?!” the demoness yelled while raising her bloodstained fists in the air.
Seeing the human finally stop giving her the runaround and taking her seriously filled Kora with a sense of pride and accomplishment, which she showed off with a self-satisfied toothy grin. Zone readjusted the grip on her staff, cracked her neck and then spat out a bloodied tooth before responding with a grin of her own. Though Boxxy was still her ‘main course’ without question, she could no longer ignore this unexpectedly juicy ‘appetizer.’
Before the two battle junkies could commence beating the crap out of each other, however, a scantily clad blue-skinned woman flew between them. One that was running for her life from an angry griffon that was slightly on fire, and thus quite literally hot on her heels. Xera had gotten a bit full of herself since she eliminated that other griffon and challenged it to a confrontation. What she failed to take into account, however, was that the one she stumbled across earlier was not only heavily injured, but also of a lower rank of species. To compare that one to this one would be doing the latter a terrible disservice.
The royal thunderhead griffin called Fluffles was a monster that was well beyond its lesser brethren. It was so tough that it unflinchingly weathered Fireballs, Infernos, Magma Missiles, Scorching Rays, and any other magic the djinn could throw at it. Xera even called out her Molten Guardian in an attempt to buy time, but the four-legged animated pile of magma was unceremoniously trampled into the ground. The griffin was also both a superbly fast flier and a deceptively nimble runner, being able to easily catch up to the overconfident demoness. Its lightning-imbued talons and beak would also rip right through her Mist Form, making it much harder for her to dodge its attacks. Frankly speaking, the only reason it hadn’t eliminated her yet was because its massive wingspan made turning around in mid-air a difficult task. It was a problem that the perpetually floating djinn did not have, but one she was eager to exploit.
That said, Xera’s luck abruptly ran out when she tried to sidestep the griffin’s lunging swipe. She somehow succeeded in avoiding the charge, but its agile tail swung around like a whip and smacked her into the ground. The half-bird half-lion shifted its weight and stepped on the grounded djinn with its hind paw, crushing her underneath all of its weight before she could react. Thinking her dead, Fluffles let out a satisfied grunt and turned its attention to its next target - the pink thing that most likely orchestrated its master’s death.
However, despite being crushed quite literally like an annoying insect, Xera wasn’t quite out of the fight just yet. Her relatively weak and fragile body would have turned to mush under normal circumstances, but Boxxy’s Soul Link Skill had transferred 30% of the immense damage to Kora. The archfiend probably didn’t appreciate that since she was in the middle of fighting Zone, but the sudden loss of HP caused a power spike in her Berserker Skills. This allowed her to momentarily surpass the Monk’s expectations and deck her in the jaw with an extremely satisfying left hook that knocked the angel to the ground.
As for Drea, she was already out of Soul Link’s effective range of 100 meters, so she didn’t factor into this equation in the slightest.
Fluffles the royal griffin pounced on top of Stain, eager to exact its revenge. The overmind slime was still persistently going after Hook, but had to give up on that endeavor when she sensed the massive creature’s approach. She instantly split her body into four equal pieces, which scattered out of the way of the beast’s stomp. This confused the griffin, as it had never seen slimes do that sort of thing.
Using that moment of hesitation, Stain unleashed a barrage of Acid Javelin Spells, peppering the beast’s fur and feathers with highly corrosive magical liquids. Feeling its body burn all over made the griffin let out a startled cry. Even though the damage was minor, the pain was not. It frantically tried to shake off the offending substance, but when it readjusted its footing to do so it slipped and fell on its side with a loud crash. It had failed to notice that Stain’s multiple bodies had already covered the entire area with a layer of sinfully slippery oil, courtesy of her Liquid Mimicry. The slime gave the beast a parting gift in the form of a Mind Blast before resuming her pursuit of the Psionic.
Humiliated, off-balance, enraged, and with its mind reeling from the impact of that Spell, the griffin could do little to prevent a certain someone from slamming into its flank. The force of the impact was great enough to send ripples across the beast’s fur and feathers, so it was no surprise the person that caused it was heavily injured.
“Ugh, damn that cheeky bastard,” Edward groaned as he clutched his broken ribs. “Question, you saw that, right?”
“I did indeed,” replied the voice in his head. “The root that tripped you up was not there by accident, it popped out of the ground just as you were passing over it. Morningwood tried to be sneaky about it, but it’s safe to assume it can manipulate plants.”
Boxxy was indeed the one who had sent the former Spymaster flying, an achievement that was only made possible because of that one seemingly tiny detail. The man had to admit, he’d never faced an opponent with this many tricks. Fighting a shapeshifter was bad enough, but this one was something else completely. It had total control over its body, allowing for a near infinite variation in attack pattern. That was without even considering the ability to produce all manner of weaponry, either by forging it out of its own body or manifesting it out of its pocket dimension. The wide array of Skills and Spells under its command was also nothing to be underestimated.
Even someone as experienced as Edward found it nigh-impossible to cope with that many unexpected attacks. In all honesty he would’ve already fallen victim to one trick or another if it wasn’t for three things. The first was his Ultimate Skill, The Eyes of Truth, which allowed him to recognize his opponent even if it tried masquerading as his allies or used body doubles. The second was his enchanted dragonhide armor, which did a great job of absorbing impacts and making blades slide right off it. The third, and perhaps most important, was his ever-helpful eye in the sky.
“Guided ice shots, parry them!”
No sooner did Question utter that warning than a series of frozen arrows came streaking towards Edward from the cloud of smoke he had been tossed out of just moments ago. The Rogue unthinkingly followed his subordinate’s advice and began deflecting the enchanted projectiles with his daggers. They always flew towards the middle of his chest, so he was able to intercept them easily enough.
A weirdly shaped canister-tipped arrow was mixed in with the frozen ones. Edward dodged this one, allowing it to hit and explode against the griffin at his back. This seemed to wake the beast up, as it began to stir and regroup instantly afterwards. Leaving Fluffles behind, Edward used Question’s aid to narrowly avoid another chain of Reality Slash Spells. Seemingly frustrated at the ineffectiveness of its ranged attacks, Boxxy lunged out of the smoke. It swung its right arm and the enchanted sword it was gripping at the Spymaster like a blade-tipped whip. But the man already knew this was a Mirror Image, so he didn’t hesitate to slice off the elongated appendage while nailing the body double with a poison-coated throwing knife to the face. Though these imitations had deceptively strong and nimble bodies, they lacked the reaction time and resistance to toxins that the real thing had.
“From below, jump!”
The one true Boxxy erupted from the abused soil in a form resembling a gigantic bear trap complete with massive steel teeth, but Edward was already airborne. However, while his attention was focused on one shapeshifter, another was already waiting for him in the air.
Beaten, battered, and cloaked with Invisibility, Xera hit the Spymaster with a fiery beam from above. One would think this wouldn’t do much against a man wearing a suit of literal dragon skin, but they would be wrong. The demoness was a djinn, and as such had the Penetration Expertise Skill which allowed her magic to bypass a portion of her target’s resistances. It wasn’t a huge amount, but it was enough to make Edward let out a pained scream as he was pushed into the ground by the force of the Spell.
He would’ve fallen right into Boxxy’s waiting jaws, but Bloknalthoz interfered. The fiend leaped through the air, plucking the Spymaster out of harm’s way and carrying him off to Mist’s side. The old Caster had demonstrated the wide array of magic at his disposal by establishing a defensive perimeter. Walls of ice and stone defended him from ground-based attacks while a net of crackling lightning covered him from above. He had also conjured up some extra bodyguards in the shape of a Cryomancer’s Glacial Guardian and a Molten Guardian of his own. The latter had a lizard-like appearance nearly identical to Xera’s, while the former was more of a jagged ice crystal with four spike-tipped legs coming out of its sides.
Boxxy let out a frustrated hiss at having its meal denied yet again, but it couldn’t allow itself to get impatient just yet. Therefore, rather than get upset, it focused its malice and frustration towards securing some… additional help. It didn’t have much time to make nefarious plots right now though, as Bloknalthoz returned swinging his axe around. The way he was handling that stupidly heavy thing as if it was made of paper was dangerous enough on its own, but the lightning crackling across it was the most worrisome part. It would appear Mist had given the weapon a temporary enchantment through a Shaman Spell before sending his fiend to keep the Gilded Hand’s primary threat busy.
Edward was currently sitting behind the cover the old man had provided, chugging a Rejuvenation Potion to restore his vitality. The body blow that sent him flying combined with being cooked inside his armor by that flying bint had greatly diminished his HP. He could have had Mist heal him with magic instead, but his mentor’s time and MP was better spent on other endeavors. Besides, his high-Level Alchemical Fortitude allowed him to drink a total of three of these without issue. It gave him a lot more leeway than regular people, who could only handle one dose of the highly potent mixture per day without succumbing to potion sickness.
“Edward my boy, I do hope you have a plan,” said Mist with ragged breaths.
“I kind of do, actually. That freak won’t be able to keep up with me for long. He’s bound to run out of MP sooner or later. And when that happens, he’ll be mine.”
“It better be sooner rather than later, because my own mana is draining away fast. I won’t be able to keep this up for much longer.”
“Everyone be advised, Inquisition forces are moving in on your position from the south and east.”
Both Edward and Mist glanced towards the directions Question mentioned. They spotted what appeared to be a total of four griffins, all of them bearing the Inquisition’s black insignia upon their chest plates. Those self-righteous bastards were undoubtedly sending ground forces as well, converging onto the loudest part of the city.
“Fucking wonderful,” Edward groaned.
The Inquisition’s appearance was not a good thing, as the Gilded Hand were probably higher on their shit list than a bunch of monsters. Not to mention that the shapeshifters could easily slip into their ranks in the confusion and use their numbers to overwhelm and eliminate the rogue operatives. In fact, that may just have been their goal all along.
“Should we fall back through a Gate?” Mist offered.
“And go where, exactly? We have too few safehouses in the area. Not to mention they probably have a way to track it.”
While great for instantaneously transporting multiple people over great distances, the Gate Spell left behind an invisible disturbance, a sort of spatial scar. It was possible to extrapolate the Spell’s destination if one used the right Skill or magic tool. And if said person had access to teleportation magic of their own, they would be able to follow almost immediately. Edward had no idea whether Boxxy had access to such things, but it wouldn’t surprise him in the slightest given the ridiculous range of abilities and equipment he’s had to deal with so far. And even if that monster couldn’t, a religious movement as large as the Inquisition would surely have magic users capable of giving chase immediately.
“Besides,” he added, “I doubt that stalker demon would let us get away with-! … Oh, shit.”
Realizing something was horribly amiss, the grizzled spy switched his focus to the voice at the back of his head.
“Question! Do you have eyes on the enemy stalker?!”
“She’s currently engaging Fluffles.”
The Spymaster looked towards the griffin in question, and a glimmering many-limbed woman was indeed clawing away at it. However, his special eyes revealed that was not the legitimate article.
“That’s a body double with some kind of illusion on it! The real one is not here!”
“What? So then where’s- Oh… Clever girl.”
“He’s gone, Edward,” Hook declared. “I just lost his mental connection. He’s either unconscious or-”
“Damn it all!”
It was bad enough they lost Edge and Bandit in such a shameful way, but Edward and his people were only able to hold their own thanks to Question calling out all of the enemy’s movements. But now that he was gone, the Spymaster had only three Gilded Hand members to work with. Four, if one were to count the rampaging griffin, but that beast would eventually become a liability now that it was no longer leashed. Reinforcements were extremely unlikely to come, as many of their surviving operatives were either out on assignments or got bombed into pieces. Saying the Gilded Hand’s current situation was dire was a horrible understatement to say the least.
Yet one of them seemed oddly unperturbed by this state of affairs, as she had been lost in her own little world this entire time.
“Haaah, haaah, haaah.”
“Huff! Huff! Huff!”
Zone and Kora were currently standing several meters from one another, each of them breathing heavily. The archfiend had taken one too many Stifling Palms from her opponent, which made it difficult for oxygen to circulate within her body. Her limbs felt incredibly heavy as if they were dead tired, despite the fact that it had only been a few minutes since the duel started. Not to mention that two of her left arms and one of her rights were bent at weird angles, making it clear they had been broken and rendered useless.
Even though the archfiend appeared to have the upper hand at first, the battle steadily turned against her favor. That was because she had engaged a Level 100 Disciple of War in one on one melee combat. Zone had already completely seen through her fighting style, and Kora was no longer able to land any clean hits. A problem that was further exacerbated by the fact that the more damage the demon took, the more she reverted to her primal, wild, and unfocused way of fighting. Although natural, it was a combat style that Zone had already demonstrated to be woefully ineffective against her.
Which wasn’t to say the Monk was uninjured, as getting to this point where she had total control of the duel had been a grueling task. Her Ki-enhancing clothes were torn in several places, and both her face and body were covered with bruises. She couldn’t even see out of her left eye due to the horrendous swelling of her eyelid, but the one she had left was more than enough. She had also lost her Artifact-grade staff at some point, forcing her to rely solely on her fists and feet. They were still deadly weapons in and of themselves, but their much shorter range was, to put it simply, not tasty.
Still, even if it wasn’t enough to completely satisfy her, Zone could not deny that this was a good fight. It had been a long time since she had been pushed this far - a long time since she felt so alive. But it wasn’t enough. The demon possessed strength, and had made an honest effort to learn how to harness it, but she ultimately lacked discipline. Zone had already seen everything Kora had to offer, meaning it was now time to put her down for good and move onto bigger, better, and Boxxy-er opponents.
The Monk performed a bare-handed Martial Art by twisting her body around and thrusting her left palm towards Kora. A barely visible ripple travelled through the air and washed over the demon, causing her to grit her teeth as all of her injuries began hurting like never before. It was a technique that did no damage, but aggravated already existing wounds. Fiends were exceptional when it came to withstanding pain, so it was nowhere near as big a distraction as one might expect.
But it did still cause her to momentarily stop moving, which was what Zone had been aiming at. The Monk dashed towards her enemy before she could react, and delivered a flurry of punches to her gut. This made the towering demon lurch forward, bringing her chin within striking distance of Zone’s fists. No, that wasn’t it. She wasn’t going down because of those body blows - she was trying to pin the Monk to the ground. Realizing what her goal was, Zone immediately gave up on uppercutting the mountain of muscle and dodged to her right to avoid getting trapped beneath it.
But she failed to get away completely. Kora’s only unbroken left arm reached out and grabbed her by the hand moments before she hit the ground. Her vice like grip tightened, threatening to crush the angel’s wrist. Zone lifted her other hand into the air and was about to pummel the fiend’s arm to make her let go, but she hesitated for the briefest moment when she saw Kora’s face. It was still smiling, but in a way subtly different from before. It wasn’t the cocky grin she had back in Azurvale, nor was it the self-satisfied smirk she had at the start of this fight. It was a sad, disappointed, close-eyed smile that seemed to say louder than any words - ‘I lost.’
A fiend had just silently admitted defeat.
The absurdity of this situation broke Zone out of her battle-trance, allowing her to catch a glimpse of something out of the corner of her eye. She looked to her side just in time to see a spider-legged doppelchester finish its arcane incantation while staring directly at her.
Kora’s body detonated, spewing out a massive column of bright green flames in the process. The demonic fireball was so bright and hot that it drew the attention of everyone on the battlefield and beyond - man and monster alike. When the flames and smoke cleared up several seconds later, all that was left of the two female fighters were a small glass crater and a charred left arm that had been burned to the bone.
“Sir. We lost Zone.”
Edward really did not need to hear Hook’s words. By the Gods, he wished he didn’t, but there was no denying it now. Not after seeing it with his own eyes. He grabbed hold of Mist’s shoulder and the two shared some heavy looks. They were now out of options, and neither man needed to say a single word to know what needed to be done next.
It was time to use their final trump card. It was the last resort of the truly desperate, one that could not be performed by anyone who valued their life or the lives of others. Even Boxxy would not even entertain the idea of using this method, mostly because it was a guaranteed death sentence. But Mist had no such fears. He had lived long enough - longer than even he thought possible. Frankly speaking, he was so old he could drop dead at any moment. However, he did not want to pass away quietly like some geriatric geezer. He wanted his death to mean something; to have value. If he was going to go out, then he would gladly spend what little life he had left to take his enemies along with him.
Granted, it wasn’t going to be as destructive as the weaponized Calamity he and Edward had failed to obtain, but unleashing the Demon King upon the mortal realm would surely do the job.