Kiel and Elaru are waiting for the results of their Muni entrance exams. Meanwhile, Nelaira’s squad finally sees the end of the Valley of Eternal Snow. Unfortunately, a Tainted takes them by surprise and beheads one of their comrades before anyone could react. Due to the extreme speed and power of the Tainted, two more comrades are killed off in succession, after which, the Tainted sets his eyes on Nelaira.
* * *
The Tainted screeched so loudly that it made everyone’s mind buzz, dazing them where they stood. And then, like a shadow, the creature slid on the snow, appearing next to Nelaira.
Episode 148 – Fall
The blasted woman kept tripping and poking it everywhere. If it weren’t for her constantly slowing down its charge, half of the pests would have already been in its stomach. Not to mention it wouldn’t have gotten hit so many times, even losing a leg!
Nelaira’s face paled and her eyes widened in shock. The contrast between her pale skin and dark eyes made her eyes look so black they were darker than the Ink seeping out of the charging monstrosity reflected in them.
[Estimated time of impact: t – 1.5 seconds]
Nelaira’s heart stilled, but her mind raced faster than ever. What should she do? What could she do?
She activated her acceleration boots with all the speed she could muster, intending to flee to the left, yet she knew it was futile. The disparity in their velocities was too huge, and the time she had before her untimely demise too short. What kind of profound tactic could she possibly come up with in the last second of her life?
She had been fighting Tainted for many years, she had countless ways, countless methods to attack and control its movement. But all of her methods and tricks were useless in the face of absolute power.
Or rather, absolute speed.
Magic and everything else needed time, the time that she didn’t have.
The time that none of them had.
She could feel the intangible fingers of death reaching for her. They could almost touch her, almost pull her into the abyss. Her life hung in a balance, suspended by a thin thread.
Yet, Nelaira didn’t panic in the face of death.
All of them were prepared to die. They wouldn’t even be allowed onto the expedition unless they handed in their last wills.
They knew what they were getting into.
Instead of falling into despair, what she should concentrate her last moments on was ensuring that her sacrifice was worth it.
She had to use her flesh and blood to give others time.
To help them survive.
That was her duty as their team leader.
[t – 1.25 seconds to impact]
The Beacon… !
Their team’s last Beacon was in her possession!
The backup Beacon had been on the body of their logistics officer, which was now dissolving in the stomach of the monstrosity. If she too ended up in the stomach of this thing alongside her Beacon, none of her team members would be able to return back home alive! Even if they successfully killed this Tainted, without supplies they were doomed to perish in the forbidden zone!
Nelaira hastily reached into the inner pocket of her jacket. Her eyes darted towards Aurel that was the closest one to her, hoping that he would understand her intentions.
[t – 1 second]
Her eyes screamed “Catch!”, however, as her gaze locked with Aurel’s, her hand that was ready to throw the Beacon stilled. After years of working together, she knew Aurel like the back of her hand.
She saw through his intentions with but a glance.
Without any extra thought, when her boots powered up, instead of accelerating towards the left, as she initially intended, she accelerated towards the right, towards Aurel.
He was her teammate.
A person she could trust. A person she could rely on.
If he thought that his family’s modified acceleration spell Blitz would be fast enough, then it would be.
[ 0.7 s]
Her right hand reached out to close the distance. Every inch counted, no matter how little. Every inch closer to Aurel was an inch further away from the abyss.
Yet, before she could fully extend it, before she could reach Aurel’s speeding form, her right shoulder slammed…
…into an invisible wall.
Unable to proceed further.
[ 0.5 s ]
In her peripheral vision, she could see the sharp gray teeth of the Tainted becoming bigger and bigger as they came closer.
Still, she was unable to break through the invisible wall in front of her.
[ 0.4 s ]
Both Aurel and his flying broadsword blitzed in Nelaira’s direction from two sides, leaving afterimages in their wake.
Aurel’s heart stopped as he noticed Nelaira’s sudden halt, but he had no time to change his direction of movement.
[ 3 ]
His left shoulder smashed into something.
His speeding body swerved to the right, almost banging head first into the creature next to Nelaira.
His outstretched right hand missed Nelaira completely, but luckily, he still had a free left hand that almost reflexively grabbed onto Nelaira’s hand.
[ 2 ]
Aurel’s neck twisted away from Nelaira, towards the monster on his right.
If only his lunge didn’t swerve off course.
If only it hadn’t swerved to the right.
But it did.
It flew right into the path of the creature’s attack.
[ 1 ]
Aurel’s flying broadsword blocked in front of him, clashing strongly with the monster’s claw swipe.
A piercing sound of a metal on metal collision was followed by a loud crack.
And then the lower half of Aurel’s sword fell lifelessly to the ground.
But the creature’s claw didn’t stop.
Its momentum lessened considerably, but it still continued onwards.
Towards Aurel’s chest.
[ 0 ]
A shrill scream tore out of Laica’s throat as she watched with bloodshot eyes as her best friend and the love of her life, her husband, the father of her son, got whacked away like a fly, speeding towards the pit from which the creature had climbed out of.
The two sailed through the air for a long distance, leaving behind round red droplets of blood that crystallized and froze before reaching the ground.
They fell like red pearls, glittering enchantingly in the white snow.
And then the two bodies crashed to the ground, raising the snow into the air.
They rolled through the path from whence the creature came from.
Rolled through the crushed snow and black blood.
Until the black mixed with the red.
And then the red became black.
Laica’s pupils dilated as she stared at the white mist and snow floating in the air around their impact point in a daze.
But there was no further sound or movement.
Even the Tainted stilled briefly, hesitating whether to go after the two flies or attack the remaining mortals. The arrowheads flying above it this time even managed to crush the right side of its head due to the pause.
The rims of Laica’s eyes reddened, her lip trembled, and what came out of her mouth was a screech of mixed grief and fury.
Mana erupted out of her like a volcano, paying no heed to the damage such a flow would cause to the flesh it passed through.
Laica’s aura became unstable, fiery, chaotic.
Yet such a state didn’t stop the creation of countless fireballs everywhere it passed.
Her form became surrounded by glowing blazing orbs, blinding to the eye, like countless little suns.
The creature’s head turned towards Laica with such vigor its neck almost snapped in half. Its drool slid down its snout like a black waterfall as it gulped loudly.
That bright fiery aura around the woman looked so irresistibly tasty.
It smelled of life.
The life it had lost long ago.
The soul it had lost long ago.
The soul that everything living had.
Everything but the Tainted.
For they were not really alive.
Neither dead nor alive, they desperately clung to this cursed existence.
So they ate, consumed, devoured…
… the mana they lacked.
Stealing the lives of others to prolong their own.
Laica’s previously stationary suns set into motion, speeding towards the Tainted like arrows shot out of a bow.
The scourge wanted to run straight towards them, towards the beautiful radiant mana calling out to it.
Yet, when it tried to move, it found its only remaining front leg encased in ice.
In the distance, near the pit, a shaky form rose from the snow, her black eyes trained on its leg.
Red blood trickled from the corner of Nelaira’s mouth, but she didn’t bother to wipe it.
Taking advantage of the moment when the creature’s attention was occupied by Laica, Luki sprang into action, speeding towards Aurel and Nelaira.
He ignored the harsh wind hitting his face, messing up his curly hair until it resembled a tiwi nest.
Nelaira used her eyes to signal him to tend to Aurel first. Her injuries were not as serious.
Then, without waiting for his arrival, she accelerated away, afraid that staying near Aurel and Luki would implicate them if the creature targeted her again.
When Luki reached Aurel’s body, that was dangerously close to the large pit, he let out a breath of relief. His inspection revealed that Aurel was not dead, only severely injured and very possibly tainted.
He looked towards the pit behind them. It was pitch-black with no bottom in sight. When he thought about how close Aurel had been to falling in, his uniform turned damp with cold sweat. In Aurel’s current state, his chances of surviving the fall were slim at best.
Luki gulped and morphed a stretcher out of the snow beneath Aurel intending to slowly move him a safe distance away from the hole without aggravating his injuries.
Meanwhile, the monster struggled to pull its leg out from the ice cast Nelaira had enveloped it in. During its short pause in movement, Laica’s fireball barrage hit it both on the head and on the sides of its body. She had been aiming for its head, but only a few managed to hit it. And even those few would have missed if it hadn’t been that the monster prioritized dodging the heavy arrowheads instead of her fireballs.
The heat of the fire melted through the monster’s skull to reveal its rotting brain, while the remaining fireballs burned a large hole through its torso.
Inherently feeling the threat upon its life, the monster bent and used its teeth to break the ice. As soon as it was released, it reared up on its hind legs, letting out an overwhelming roar, followed by a powerful stomp.
The dust rose into the air and the entire land shook. Countless long cracks appeared in the ground.
Nelaira who had been shaky on her feet to begin with, lost her balance and fell forwards.
She wasn’t the only one that failed to activate their flying boots in time. Her team’s archeologist and scout both fell to the ground. Laica alone managed to remain standing.
Luki, who had just made a snowy stretcher for Aurel, fell back down to the ground as well, dizzy from the shaking. His hands grabbed onto the snow beneath him, yet strangely, he felt it slipping in between his fingers.
His body felt as if it was falling, as if the ground beneath him disappeared.
His head snapped towards the ground only to see the snow rolling towards the endless abyss.
The tremor had caused the sides of the nearby pit to cave in, widening the hole. It quickly reached and surpassed Luki’s and Aurel’s current positions.
Luki gaped in shock, his hands grabbing onto Aurel’s snowy stretcher.
Before he could do anything further the world around him disappeared. He could no longer see his comrades or the battle, besides the darkness, there was only the beautiful clear blue sky.
Laica stared at the two familiar figures getting swallowed by the darkness and she felt something inside of her snap.
Her last remaining shred of rationality evaporated into thin air and she charged towards the hole like a wild beast, disregarding everything else.
The only thing in her eyes was Aurel’s falling body and Luki’s helpless kneeling form, gripping on to him tightly.
Seeing its target flying away, the Tainted twisted its body to follow. The sudden rotation jolted its insides and putrid black innards started to fall out through the hole in its torso.
They fell onto the ground with a squish, splashing a large stain of black onto the white snow.
Nelaira’s heart sank. It would take mere seconds for it to catch up with her best friend!
Coming up in the next episode:
The creature suddenly felt another bright torch of life in its dark world that was even more enticing than the one it was chasing and instinctively halted.
Using her flesh to shield, her life to protect what was dearest to her.
Her arm shakily twitched forwards, trying its utmost to extend towards, to grab onto the two blurry figures.
“Alright, alright, don’t be grumpy Evin. I promise, after this mission, we’ll ask for time off. We’ll have some family time, the three of us. How about it? We can go visit Arena City together, that’s where you always wanted to go, right?”