At the edge of the clearing, the other Hydra broke its teeth on Pardus' full plate harness. That was a bad thing, but it was hardly a crippling injury for a Hydra. Teeth grew back, after all. And while the Hydra itself was too stupid and bestial to understand the significance of that, the malign will behind its glowing yellow eyes had learned from the experience.
The Hydra's powerful jaws were ineffective against the armor; the enchanted mithril defied every attempt to rend his flesh and break his bones. The cyclopean smith who had built it for him was to be lauded for his work; it essentially made direct attacks against Pardus useless.
So instead, the Hydra's controller had improvised.
It had used five heads to distract Pardus, sacrificing them to the point of Pardus' spear, and the sixth to grab him by the leg while the fighter was tied up defending against the first five. Once that happened, the battle was decided.
The Hydra did not give Pardus a chance to get his bearings. Instead, the final head whipped Pardus around with its monstrous strength, slamming him against the ground and hidden rocks. The Panther Beastman might have been a veteran warrior, his body honed through countless combats, but for all his experience, even he could not train up a resistance to a broken neck.
By the time the Hydra was done flailing Pardus around like a damp rag, he hung limply from a mouthful of smashed teeth, his spear and shield fallen from his nervous fingers.
He was not dead, but at this point, it made no difference.
Just to be safe, though, the mastermind ordered one of the other heads to work its fangs between Pardus' helmet and breastplate. Since it was not one solid piece, there was a gap to exploit, and while some of its teeth fractured between the power of its jaws and the strength of the mithril, several sank into the soft flesh underneath, drawing a spurt of blood.
After dropping the decapitated corpse, the Hydra spat its helmeted head onto the sod beside it.
It paid to be pragmatic, after all.
Meanwhile, Arctos pressed the attack. It was futile, and he knew it.
Arctos was not a frontline warrior. As the runt of his litter and an albino to boot, he was weaker than his siblings and less able to fend for himself in a world where strength meant everything. Instead, he chose to leverage the few strengths he had; his senses and his agility. This led to him training as a scout and pathfinder. In battle, his friends created opportunities which he exploited, driving his steel deep into vulnerable flesh as his enemies were distracted.
Conversely, when he was alone and unsupported, he was weak and easily picked-off. Wolves hunted in packs, and few knew that fact of life better than one outside it.
Perhaps if his mind had been clearer, he would have realised that drawing the Hydra off might help Julian's chances of survival, or that the Hydra had one foot planted on the same squirming pile while it fought.
In other words, if he ran, he could force the Hydra to move, and if the Hydra moved, the adventurers might be able to win.
However, his passion overruled his reason, and the source of that passion was the devotion he felt to his comrades.
Arctos knew that he was nothing without his friends. They had saved him countless times, and he, in turn, was willing to take great risks for them. When his pack had cast him out, they had been his pack; they put up with him and they showed that they needed him.
He could not abandon his pack. His body might not have conformed to the ideal of a Wolf Beastman, but his heart and soul were a different matter.
Unfortunately, heart and soul were not enough to overcome an overwhelming disparity in fighting strength. Unlike the tales of the bards, where the heroes won through virtue and willpower, this was the real world, and in the real world, when a plucky young peasant stood up to a giant, the giant won every time.
Therefore, the outcome of Arctos' assault was quite predictable. He was nimble and his sharpened kukris allowed him to strike like a stronger warrior, but he had to keep moving just to avoid being hit.
The need to go fast at all times, combined with his smaller frame and similarly reduced stamina, meant that he could not keep up his pace for long. In contrast, the Hydra had a much higher tolerance for fatigue, and its incredible vitality and self-healing abilities meant that it could shrug off almost any attack which was not backed with fire or acid.
Eventually, he faltered, and one of the Hydra's snapping jaws gashed his leg. It was an otherwise minor wound, but it slowed him down... which meant that he took more and more hits which slowed him down further, until at last, he could not evade the champing maws of the Hydra.
Without heavy armor to protect him, the Hydra's jaws could find purchase in his flesh. The result was not unlike a wishbone cracking at a holiday feast.
It was certainly more gory.
After dropping the torn lumps of cloth and flesh, the Hydra surveyed its surroundings. It paid no attention to the wriggling mass below its foot, mashed well into the semisolid mud by now.
Behind its eyes, the mastermind marvelled at the third warrior's resilience. Though its movements were more sluggish than before, it had been struggling while the Hydra was fighting its companions. A lesser creature would have succumbed by now. Yet, this one chose the path of resistance.
The third warrior was arguably the most potent warrior of its fellows. Though its foot speed was slow, it moved fast enough to fend off the Hydra's assaults, and it was every bit as strong as the long-fanged warrior.
However, despite its potent attack and defense, it was helpless against a surprise attack.
The mastermind readily exploited that vulnerability and it had gone one step further; it had not wasted its surprise attack on a bite that would have been deflected by armor. Instead, it had opted to hold the third warrior under the mud, taking it out of the fight.
The price of that was the Hydra's inability to move, but the mastermind had made a wager, and it had won.
If the Hydra could not go to its foes, then it would make its foes come to it. The other two warriors, eager to save their friend, had saved the Hydra the trouble of having to chase down multiple opponents, and they had fallen one by one.
The mastermind intended to do the same with the third warrior.
Since it was a difficult foe to fight, the solution was not to fight it. The third warrior would wear itself out with struggling, and it would surely suffocate and drown in the mud. The bulk of the Hydra pinning it down would make sure of that.
If only the one that ran off thought the same way, it could have moved on to the next phase of its plan. Alas, it had wisely chosen to run from a superior force, and so the mastermind had to dispatch one of its servitors after it.
Speaking of which--
The mastermind blinked.
There was no response from the first Hydra.
A mental link existed between the mastermind and its servitors; the mastermind could pour its will through that link and assume direct control of them. Even when it did not infuse its servitors with its controlling intelligence, it could still issue orders and borrow their sensory input.
The link was broken.
What could that mean?
The first possibility was that the servitor had been killed. The mastermind immediately discarded that idea.
The runner was weak enough that it had fled. If it was powerful enough to kill a Hydra by itself, it would have done so while its companions were still there.
There was also a second possibility.
Could it be that the Hydra had gone beyond the mastermind's reach?
The mastermind had once sent a previous servitor far away, and the mental link to it had broken. Was that the case now?
Just as it pondered that idea, its servitor sensed movement from the trees-
The clouds overhead had floated away, and the full moon illuminated the Hydra, who stood tall within the clearing. The remains of Arctos and Pardus littered the ground at its feet, above the weakly-struggling heap that was Igni.
Hitomi floated out of the tree line and towards him, as regal and composed as always. Julian was nowhere to be seen, and neither was her staff.
In its place -- in her left hand -- she held a tree trunk. This was not a slender sapling either, but a fallen hulk that had been marinating in the swamp. She had picked it up on her way here.
The huge log was easily half a meter across, and it was about five times her height. Granted, Hitomi was not exactly a towering hulk, but she was at least as tall as Julian, even without the height boost of her innate buoyancy.
Its body was half-coated in stinking mud which dripped off it as it dragged over the mushy ground. Its leaves were long gone, and so its barren crown looked quite similar to its roots before they had been half-rotted away.
The hand which held the tree was not wearing her usual dragonwing leather gloves. These gloves also made of leather, but their material was heavier and thicker, with metal studs for reinforcement. They looked like they were designed for heavy labor.
Fragments of decaying bark crumbled around the thick fingers which gripped it. It was so wide that her fingers could not come anywhere close to meeting around its circumference. In other words, it was like trying to hold a plate without touching the rims. Yet somehow, the gloves kept their grip on the side of the tree.
In addition, Hitomi would have needed incredible amounts of strength to drag the tree through the muck and the undergrowth, but she did not seem to be exerting herself at all.
For that matter, the strength needed for such an effort should have snapped the half-rotted hulk in two, but the wood held together in defiance of physics and belief.
Hitomi's central eye was fixed on the Hydra, which turned its own glowing eyes on her. It seemed to be sizing her up. There were no threat displays; no roaring, no hissing, no raising its heads to appear bigger.
This Hydra was no mere beast. But Hitomi was prepared for that.
She drew closer, advancing into the clearing. The fallen tree dragged behind her, and the Hydra tensed up like a coiled spring. Its eyes watched her for any sudden movements, and it shifted its stance, ready to evade if need be.
Closer, closer... and then she stopped. For a few seconds, both sides watched each other.
Amidst the creaking and cracking of wood, Hitomi adjusted her grip on the log and lifted it off the ground. Blobs of dried mud fell off the tree, bouncing off an invisible barrier surrounding her as she ponderously raised it upwards with one arm until it pointed to the sky. The sight of a human-sized woman lifting something about five times her height with such nonchalance seemed utterly unreal.
The tree stood there for a moment, like a gigantic hammer. It was clearly evident that she was positioning herself for a weighty overhand smash.
With her free hand, she pointed at the Hydra and said something. Then, she brought it down on the Hydra like a thunderbolt.
The Hydra had taken in the proceedings, and it was now faced with a decision; stay in place and be hit by that monstrously powerful attack, or move so that it could protect itself and slay the interloper.
The third warrior was dangerous, but this interloper was more dangerous and more vulnerable. It did not wear armor and looked like the two robe-wearing intruders it had torn apart earlier.
That brought a hint of panic to the Hydra's mind. It might be able to do meaningful damage to itself, and that was something it wanted to avoid at all costs.
Therefore, the decision was made; give ground in order to kill the interloper, then continue grinding the third warrior into the muck.
Making that decision had cost several seconds of time, and the shadow of the log now loomed above its prey.
However, Hitomi's movements were so slow and telegraphed that the Hydra saw the attack coming from a mile away. It had more than enough time to move aside and charge ahead, following a slightly curved course as it ran inside the path of the falling log to reach the person holding it.
Perhaps it was laughing at her, but there seemed to be a hint of glee in the way it surged forward to both evade the strike and bring its lethal jaws to bear.
Hitomi remained impassive. She did not attempt to evade, or abort her strike.
That was because she had no need to do so.
Just as the pouncing Hydra's heads came within a foot from her--
--They suddenly snapped back, like bungee cords recoiling after reaching full extension.
It was not just the leading heads which did so. Every single one of its heads suddenly jerked back as an invisible, massive impact struck the Hydra with a thunderous krump, accompanied by the cracking of ribs and bones as they disintegrated under the force of the unseen blow.
So powerful was the hit that it sent a shockwave rippling through the surrounding forest. The awesome blow lifted the Hydra bodily off the ground and sent it flying through the air. That was why the heads had pulled away at the last minute; where the body went, the heads had to follow.
The stricken Hydra flew back through the air... and then vanished.
It was followed by a loud splash. That was odd; the ground was soft, but that was the sound of something landing in water. But there was no water around here... or was there?
The log, having never come near the Hydra, fell to earth. In contrast to the Hydra, however, it made absolutely no sound. There was no impact of wood striking sod to be felt.
It was as though the log did not exist at all.
Hitomi's body shimmered, and then the log vanished. No, that was not quite right. The log did not so much vanish as switch positions, going from resting on the ground while held in the left hand to braced in a defensive stance while held in the right.
She had used a [Mislead] spell to turn herself and any weapons she wielded invisible, while simultaneously creating an illusion of herself doing whatever she wanted.
The net effect was that she had put on a big show of swinging at the Hydra, and it had fallen for it. Perhaps if the Hydra's mind was still its own, it might have backed away and not been hit by the invisible tree trunk swinging at it from the opposite direction... but it would seem that the malign intelligence guiding it had decided to take a risk, which had earned it a grievous injury instead.
So it can craft illusions, but it can't see through them.
Hitomi snorted at the irony of the situation.
"Live by the sword, die by the sword, I guess," she mused. Then she turned to the air below and to the left of her.
With a wave of her hand, Julian reappeared from under the invisibility spell she had cast on him.
"Go save your friend. I'll take care of the rest."
With that, she raised the log into a thrower's stance, like she was going to hurl a javelin. Then she sent it downrange, the huge hunk of wood whistling through the air like an arrow.
Julian shivered as Hitomi threw the fallen tree. How strong must she have been to throw something like that? How much strength did it take to send a Hydra flying with a single blow?
Could even the mighty Dragon Lords do that?
He did not know. The idea that Hitomi might be more powerful than a Dragon Lord sent a chill down his spine.
His desperate prayer for salvation had been answered... but was he simply exchanging one monster for another?
Julian had seen what Hitomi had done to the first Hydra; how she could wall it off with magic force and destroy it with contemptuous ease using a ray of divine light.
As a magic caster himself (albeit nowhere near the level of Nishuru or Muk-tuk), he understood that what she had done implied that she commanded powerful magic. Yet, he had never seen such magic before, not even among his fellow adventurers.
In fact, it seemed closer to the magic attributed to the Thirteen Heroes.
She was stronger than the Hydras, even without her magic. Even the Hydras could not lift a tree with one hand, and they certainly could not swing hard enough to send a Hydra flying with a single blow.
He had thought that she was an angel at first, given her celestial aspect and the fact that she seemed to have come from the heavens. He had even asked if she was one, but then she had denied it. Did that mean she was a hero instead? What was a hero doing in a place like this? Why had she chosen to help a pathetic little man like him?
And then it hit him -- she had helped him precisely because she was a hero. In a time of darkness, she had come to bring hope. It was what heroes did.
And then, she had spoken to him as they walked through the swamp.
"The Hydra is in the clearing ahead, but there is only one other living being there. Your friends are most likely dead, but you can save the one who clings to life. I will chase off the Hydra, but you must save him."
Julian's tongue froze in his mouth. All... dead... he thought, but then he shook his head.
"Wait, are you trained as a healer? Can you use healing magic? Otherwise..."
As a bard, Julian was a jack of all trades; he had a passing familiarity with just about any kind of adventuring skill, and bardic spells could replicate the healing powers of low-tier divine magic. The answer to both of Hitomi's questions was "yes", but then he wondered why she had even asked it in the first place.
She was powerful, was she not? She could do everything, could she not? So why had she insisted that he be the one to help his friend?
Could it be that she was not omnipotent? Or perhaps...
Perhaps she wants to let you save him. He's your friend. You asked for her help, but you're the one who wants to see them safe.
Julian squeezed his eyes shut as his shame crushed down on him again. He had run away and gotten his team killed, and now he wanted to run away again?
No. Hitomi was right. He had to do this. Nobody else should be doing it. He might have to borrow her strength to deal with the Hydra, but saving his friends was something he could do by himself.
Julian looked up and nodded. The grim set of his face spoke of his conviction.
Thus, though he flinched in the face of her terrifying power, once she vanished into... well, wherever the Hydra and the log had gone, Julian ran forth, looking for the mound under the Hydra which Hitomi had pointed out to him before her attack on the Hydra.
He saw Pardus' severed head and the shredded body of Arctos as he neared it. A heart-rending twinge of guilt brought tears to his eyes, but he fiercely shook them away.
They were beyond help. He had to focus on saving those who were still hanging on to life.
He reached the mound and began digging. Clods of dirt flew out behind him as he dug and he dug and...
"...Igni?" Julian asked.
But his Dwarven comrade could not hear him. It would be a wonder if he could hear at all - he had been stamped face-down into the mud for who knew how long, and all his facial orifices were packed full of mushy, stinking, semi-solid earth.
Was he even breathing?
"Come on, Igni!" Julian shouted, pulling on the Dwarf. However, he only managed to pull himself into the dirt.
Igni was heavy; he might have been shorter than a human being, but he weighed every bit as much as one, thanks to Dwarves' stony constitution. Then, there was the matter of his adamantite plate armor to consider. Dwarves were not fleet of foot, but they were very strong and resilient; they thus favored thicker plates to compensate for a lack of agility.
In this case, it was a big drawback for Julian, who was hardly a strongman.
"[Lesser Strength]!" he incanted, and he felt his body bulge and heat up. Mana permeated every fiber of his being, and with the muscle power afforded by his newfound strength (and the fortuitous find of a hidden rock for better footing), Julian managed to tear Igni from his earthen tomb.
The Dwarf fell on his back, and the shock jolted him conscious, whereupon he began coughing. He choked and spat out chunks of thick brown mud, then rose to his elbows.
"Igni!" Julian shouted, reaching out to him.
The Dwarf turned, and then got to his hands and knees, whereupon he continued vomiting sludge. Julian's heart ached as he saw his friend in such obvious distress.
Igni did not seem to be injured, though it would seem he had nearly drowned. Julian did not know what spells would help with that, so he reached for his Wand of Light Cure Wounds -- a staple item for any adventuring party -- and pointed it at him.
"[Light Cure Wounds]!" he said, and green sparkles bloomed around Igni.
"[Light Cure Wounds]!" he said again, and the green sparkles bloomed once more.
"[Light-]" he began, and then Igni held up his hand.
"Enough, you'll wear it out," the Dwarf said, his voice hoarse and weak.
Still, he was speaking -- he was alive.
"I nearly swallowed half the swamp, I didn't get cut up," he said. "Don't waste it."
"I'm so sorry!" Julian replied, a plaintive note in his voice.
"Why'd you come back? You damn fool. Got your family to worry about and you come back for a bunch of bums like us."
The Dwarf grinned.
"Still... thank you. I don't know how you did it, but thank..."
Igni exhaled, soft as a sigh, and then his eyes closed. Shortly after that, he crashed to the mud again.
"Igni? Igni?!" Julian shouted.
He shook the Dwarf's shoulder to try and rouse him. Given Igni's heavy armor, it was more like trying to rock his body from side to side.
But there was no response.
The clearing was a lie.
Hitomi had seen as much when she had sent a [Greater Arcane Eye] to scout ahead for her. It was a huge illusion which covered a lake, at the center of which was a small isle containing a cave entrance.
Despite being only a mid-tier spell, it was still quite potent; it replicated visual, auditory and even olfactory stimuli. One would need to physically interact with it or possess powerful senses to see through it.
Fortunately, her [Greater Arcane Eye] possessed all the sensory enhancements she had -- Hitomi had a lot of those.
The lake was surrounded by several other smaller but equally-convincing illusions. Those seemed to have been set up as hides, where a Hydra could lurk and ambush people who were drawn in by the clearing.
It was a pretty good setup. Hitomi had to admit that she would have been bamboozled without her augmented vision -- which only went to show how important it was to have intelligence when fighting.
She put the pieces of the puzzle together. Complicated illusions. Hydras. The fact that the latter acted intelligently.
The picture they produced pointed to one particular monster, known colloquially as the "marine mastermind".
Monsters of that sort did not favor direct conflict, but they possessed great powers of illusion and they could steal men's souls and make them slaves. In this case, this mastermind must have ensnared the two Hydras and used them as minions.
Well, there was only one of them left now.
After issuing a mental command, Hitomi floated over the surface of the lake, which was slowly turning red from the Hydra's lifeblood gushing into it.
Somehow, it managed to look even more pathetic than the first one she had killed. Her swing with the tree trunk had pretty much caved in the entire right side of its body, and its fast healing was having a very hard time dealing with the compound fractures and internal bleeding caused by the impact.
On top of that, the log she had thrown protruded from its torso, its branches skewering several of its necks. Its eyes glowed dimly as it struggled to look at Hitomi.
It was still alive, but at this point, death would have been a mercy.
I think I overdid it, Hitomi mused as she drew closer. The Hydra inched away from her, and then she grabbed the trunk and ripped it out of the Hydra. It howled from a dozen different throats, and then it glowed green.
"[Heal]," she said, and the Hydra's sucking torso wound closed up. Its concaved torso puffed back out, the fragments of its ribs knitting together and returning to their original positions, the shattered bones of its legs fusing, straightening and hardening until they were solid again.
Thus restored, its heads moved with purpose and power, and the Hydra was the very picture of health once more.
Hitomi drew her golden staff once more, the one which looked like a crozier with a sunburst-and-eye motif on the end. She then took a battle stance and beckoned the Hydra with one hand.
This was very foolish.
It was also necessary.
"Come on then. Give it your best shot."
The Hydra hesitated... and then it lunged, splashing through the water at Hitomi with a bestial roar.
Hitomi did not smile, did not snarl, did not do anything but watch the Hydra as it came. Her attention was not so much on where it currently was, but where it would be.
--A feint, obviously, trying to herd me into the rest of its heads; but if you know about a trap, you can turn it on the trapper--
--And Hitomi barrelled into the nest of heads, moving precisely and carefully enough to not only evade the forest of snapping jaws, but to make the necks get in the way of the Hydra's own attacks. She must have been psychic, given how she reacted to blows a split second before they landed, but within seconds she was through the forest of heads and behind the Hydra.
It whipped its tail at her--
--And she caught it. The thick length thrashed and flailed in her hands like a rabid weasel, but Hitomi's strength was undeniable.
"Thank you," she said. Then she took a stance in mid-air before exerting her strength to bodily hurl the Hydra at the small island.
The Hydra sailed gracefully through the air, bouncing when it hit the island, rolling several times, and then stopping with a splat against a large rock.
As it stumbled to its feet, Hitomi was floating in the air over it, ready to take it on.
The Hydra lunged at her with one head after another, but Hitomi twirled her staff and deflected every strike that came her way, snapping the necks back with mouthfuls of shattered teeth. It tried to bite with multiple heads at once, but Hitomi dodged nimbly, and they ended up colliding with each other. It tried a sequence of feints, but Hitomi saw through them effortlessly.
And then, just as the Hydra was preparing for a headlong rush into her--
--Every single one of the Hydra's two dozen eyes simultaneously exploded in a spray of vaporized humors. It was a miracle the heads did not burst like smashed pumpkins considering the equivalent of two firecrackers had gone off inside each of them, but Hitomi possessed incredible precision with her barrage of [Split Magic Holy Rays].
"Hm, targeting's going well, next up is... [Triplet Magic - Delayed Fireball]."
She held out three fingers before her, and three tiny, glowing pea-sized beads launched forth from their tips. They soared into the open mouths of three of the heads as they howled in pain from having their eyes popped, going down the gullets, until they met in the central gizzard and...
Hitomi snapped her fingers.
The Hydra blew apart from within, as a fiery explosion scattered ropes of gore, bone fragments and shredded flesh in all directions. Tongues of flame spouted from each of the Hydra's mouths, calling to mind the image of a Pyrohydra.
Incidentally, since those were immune to flame attacks, Hitomi's stunt with those [Delayed Fireballs] would not have worked on it.
The stench of cooked flesh and offal rose through the air, but Hitomi was no longer there to smell it.
The mastermind reeled.
What on earth had just happened?
It was all set to destroy the interloper, but then its servitor had taken a hit from... something.
Shortly after that, a large tree trunk had impaled its minion, and it had been so surprised that it had not even reacted to the robe-clad interloper.
It could not make sense of why the being in white floated above the ground without wings, or why it had healed its servitor, but if it was going to be that foolish, then it would oblige its opponent.
The mastermind had not been able to land a single hit on the interloper. It was adept at the manipulation of its servitors, and it had been able to take apart the warriors and robed beings from earlier, but this was a completely different case.
The interloper had completely outclassed it. The mastermind and its servitor were little more than a baby animal flailing at falling leaves.
And then, its servitor was blinded. Shortly after that, it was destroyed.
The mastermind was still reeling from the shock of being forcibly ejected from its servitor's consciousness when it heard a loud splash.
However, its mind was still half-stunned, and it could not react to the force which seized it around its equivalent of a neck and bodily threw it out of the water.
It hit something hard, hit something hard again, and came to rest on a large, dry, flat rock.
The mastermind's lungs burned; the pain cut through the dazed fog shrouding its mind and honed its mental faculties.
It was in a dark cavern; one which connected to the sea, with a pool of water in the center where it had been hiding while it directed its servitors.
Standing before it was the interloper.
"There you are. Really, I must thank you for sticking around to fight me instead of running away on the spot. That might have made finding you more troublesome. As it was, once the eye found you, it was a simple matter of teleporting over."
The interloper leaned in, inspecting the mastermind.
"As I thought, an Aboleth," the interloper said. "If I'm not wrong, you ought to have the ability to generate several kinds of illusions, a sort of hypnotic pattern, and..."
The Aboleth concentrated, focusing on the interloper. Suddenly, its world turned to blackness. All it saw was bodies as wireframes and minds as complex networks of pulsing light.
Those that were not aligned to itself were white. Those which were subservient to it were green.
The Aboleth could paint white-colored minds green. It had done so to the Hydras, and once it did, they became its loyal servitors. It could command them or take over their bodies to assume direct control of their actions. It could also share their sensory input, making them good scouts.
This interloper had exposed itself before it. The Aboleth would...
The Aboleth tried its hardest to infect the swirling galaxy of glittering white points -- the interloper's mind -- with its green, but the mind resisted it; it could not make any headway, and--
"...And the ability to enslave other lifeforms as a [Domination] spell three times a day. Doesn't work on me, of course."
The interloper bent down and picked up the miniature Aboleth. It was a slippery, slimy creature that looked like a tentacled catfish with three eyes, each stacked one on top of the other. It was about the size of a salmon, and it thrashed fearfully as Hitomi looked it in the eyes.
Her nose wrinkled in disgust -- and not just from the smell of ammonia which surrounded it.
"Now, a full-grown Aboleth should have dozens of layers of illusions and enslaved minions to bamboozle and slay any intruders... but you're not full-grown, are you now? Kind of a runt, hm? [Telepathy]."
The Aboleth now heard Hitomi's voice echoing inside its head, and it said, "Answer me. Are you fully grown?"
"Where are your parents?"
"W-What are parents?"
"Eh? No parents? And you made it all the way out here by yourself? What the hell?"
The Aboleth could sense annoyance building in Hitomi. Annoyance was like anger, and Hitomi's anger... well, it had witnessed it first hand.
No, that was not even anger. Anger would have required some measure of emotional investment.
She did not care about the Aboleth. Not one bit. It had the feeling that she would gladly dash its head open against the cavern wall just to test her grip on its slimy hide.
It would not be anger. It would not even be revenge. It would simply be garbage disposal.
A chill ran down the Aboleth's spine, and it froze. It knew its demise was at hand, and the desire to live filled it with fear.
"Please," it pleaded. "Don't, don't kill me..."
"Oh, begging for your life, are we? What happens if I spare your life?"
"I... I...I'll go away and leave you alone?"
"You might. Or you might not. Or I could just brain you against this rock right now and you would never bother me again. It would be the safest course of action, don't you think?"
The Aboleth tensed up, and then it began vibrating intensely. Hitomi scowled -- apparently, it was the mental equivalent of sobbing in fear and helplessness.
"Man, you're pathetic. Shut up, damn you, or I really will splatter you all over the cavern wall."
It took some effort, but eventually the Aboleth complied.
"You've taken slaves before, no? Then you should be familiar with this arrangement. You will be my slave. I will control every aspect of your life. You will not use your powers without my approval. You will not speak until spoken to. You will obey without question or I will turn you off like a switch. Do you understand me?"
The terrified Aboleth replied with a mental nod.
"Good. [Eclipse]," she said. A golden circle appeared on her brow, with a gold dot in the center. The symbol glowed dimly in the darkness of the cave.
"Now, repeat after me..."
Julian knelt over Igni's unconscious body.
The Dwarf was still breathing, but Julian was on the verge of tears when he felt something ripple in the air. He turned to look at the "clearing", and he could hardly believe his eyes.
The air before him shimmered, warped, distorted, and then vanished. In its place was a wide lake, its shores tinted red, with a small isle in the center. Said isle had the entrance to a cave on it.
A burned-out Hydra corpse lay against a large rock on the isle, apparently blasted apart from within. Julian instinctively knew who had done it.
That person came out of the cave entrance.
Hitomi hovered over the water's surface as she floated over to Julian and Igni. She did not pay any attention to the Hydra, though she did glance toward the lake's shore -- at the remains of Muk-tuk and Nishiru.
Though she seemed to be proceeding at a leisurely pace, she was by his side in an instant, and she peered over Igni.
"Still breathing, no?" she asked.
"Y-yes," Julian nodded. "B-but he passed out again..."
"He was nearly drowned in mud, I'll bet. He needs to recover. Are there healers where you live?"
"Ah... yes," Julian replied. "But they usually only open in the morning..."
Strictly speaking, that was not entirely accurate. The Temple of the Moon conducted its services at night. However, it was located halfway up the mountain, and by the time they reached it, it would probably be morning anyway.
"So much for emergency care," Hitomi shrugged. "Alright, I'll see this through to the end. I'll help bring you and your friend home before I leave... although, do you want to gather the remains of your other friends? Bury them, resurrect them... I don't think you'd want their bones to rot in a swamp, no?"
Julian shook his head, and as he did, he noticed something.
Hitomi seemed to have a necklace of some sort; a small glass orb filled with liquid.
There seemed to be a tiny fish swimming inside it.
"Get cracking, then. I'll whistle up a [Floating Board] or three to carry all of you."