Illusionistquest Chapter 19: Mental Breakdown


Chapter 99

You snap your finger toward Clarissa, taking the Crow off guard.

“First, I need both you and Alice to go into the mines and find Ginelle and Saya. Bring them back, but be careful. I doubt that Fiora would make this much of a stink if we weren’t close to something she doesn’t want us near.”

“Uh…” Clarissa begins, but you’ve already turned to Clint.

“Clint, I need you to go back to the fort and get everyone, and I mean EVERYONE there to storm that place. The time for subtly is over, we’re not playing games. Fiora won’t hurt them until the very end because she’s convinced she can use them against me.”

“Can’t she?” Clint asks, raising an eyebrow. You hesitate for a moment, long enough for him to sigh and pull down on his hat. “Yes, I get it. Sounds to me like they’re hiding out in the mines. It’s dangerous to ask those two to go alone though, are you sure you want to do that?”

“It’s the only way. The captain won’t listen to anyone else and I need to contact Anderson. He has to know what is happening here. Maybe he can do something to help as well.” You put a hand to your head and take a deep breath before getting out your [Port-o-Glass].

“I don’t think we’ll have an issue in those mines, but kid…” Alice begins before shaking her head. “I mean, Tobias, this seems like a pretty rash plan. I’m all for those, but Solos damnit man, this is your kid you’re talking about, isn’t it? Are you sure you want to risk that?”

She crosses her arms and asks, “I didn’t really get many details about this person, but she broke in, took people you care about, and then mocked you for it? What did you do to this person?”

“She’s not a person, not anymore,” you growl. Alice looks at you oddly for a moment before her eyes go wide.

“Holy shit. You mean to say that this Fiora is a Monster? She was Monsterized?!” Alice flips about to look between Clint and Clarissa and they both nod their heads. She looks back to you and smiles, “Is this Chalan person a Monster too?”

“I… am not certain,” you say, frowning. “But she’s close enough I suppose-”

“WELL THEN,” Alice says, standing up straight. “I suppose we better be going! Here I thought I’d be going after some human with a vendetta or something. Like, man, did this guy fuck her and dump her something? Nah, you probably just beat the shit out of her at one point, eh?”

“Ginelle threw a table at her, yes,” you say, frowning. She chuckles heartily as you sigh and ask, “So, do you want to know what kind of Monster she is?”

“Nah,” Alice says, tapping her sword before reaching into Clarissa’s bag. The Crow Girl squawks and flails about as she digs through the bag and eventually pulls out a [Health Potion]. She hands it over to you before taking the bird’s wing. “Welp, see you later then. You don’t mind if I kill Fiora, rescue your girlfriend, and save the day without you, do you?”

“Uh… no?”

“Great,” she says, dragging the surprised Clarissa with her. She pauses at the door and asks, “Oh yeah, if the badger doesn’t make it…?”

“Saya’s a Monster too,” you sigh. Alice stops and stares at you for a long time before turning around and walking out the door. Clint slowly turns to you and scratches his head.

“So… do you think she was being serious?”

“Partially,” you say, shrugging. “But she’s probably as good as she wants us to believe she is. Saya wouldn’t lie about that, and her mannerisms… she’s scary.”

“I see,” Clint says before shaking his head. “Tobias, are you sure about all this? It’s really brash and it feels… I don’t know, like we’re walking into some kind of trap.”

“What else can we do?” you say, accessing your ley-mail and weaving a message to Anderson. “We can’t slink about in the dark anymore, it’s time to get serious.”

Clint watches you a long while before nodding and grabbing his rifle. “Alright, I’m on my way to rally the troops. We’ll get them back, you know?”

“I know,” you say, looking down at your hands. Despite yourself, your knuckles tighten until you take another deep breath.

“Destroy the contraband,” you say, going back to your runes. “She’ll want to go after it again for whatever reason, you need to get them to dispose of it.”

“Fair enough,” Clint replies before nodding his head. “Anyway, we’ll meet up later then.”

“Right. Good luck,” you say as he walks out the door. Though every second spent on this is one not spent looking for Akela, you work on the message a while longer, going over everything in as much detail as possible. You finish and send it to Anderson, waiting the requisite second before a reply comes:

“Wait.”

You do, though you feel your heart beating hard in your chest. Gods damnit, you need to get out there, find everyone, and bring your family together again. As your immediate gratification is not met, you prepare to power down the device when Abigail pops her head out of your jacket.

“Hey asshat. How’s it going?”

“Not right now, Abigail,” you say, grinding your teeth. “I don’t need this shit at the moment.”

“You think I’m happy to see your pain? I’m not. I’m really not.” She flutters out of your jacket before your face. “They took my art buddy and my bully bait. Honestly, I know I just wanted to be free of this shit by you killing Fiora beforehand but now… I dunno.” She rolls her hand.

“It’s personal too, I suppose.”

You look up at her and blink a few times. “Wait, what? You care about what happens to us?”

She blushes and crosses her arms. “Well! I mean… sure, I suppose and… ugh.” She shakes her head and sighs. “Ever since we started killing those Illusionists, I’ve just felt… I dunno. Less angry?” When you give her a dubious look, she growls, “Shut it. It’s true though. I mean, you guys don’t really think of me as part of the group but I… I dunno, I guess I do like you people. I was a little afraid to come out and say it but… gah, this hasn’t been a miserable little trip together.”

“Abigail…” you say, utterly stunned. “Are you saying that you’re having fun with us?”

“Uhm… yes?” she says, blushing more. “Damnit. Maybe you should just die after all!”

You shake your head and chuckle. “Abigail, no one actually hates you. It’s not a situation anyone wants to be in, but you’re doing really well…” As you say this your eyes drift to your ley-mail, but see no reply yet. Standing up, you walk over to Ophelia’s discarded luggage and dig through. Is it possible that it’s still here? As you do so, you ask Abigail absently, “I do have to ask though, what’s with you getting bigger when you receive the power anyway?”

“Do what now?” she asks, cocking her head. “Getting bigger? I just feel warm and then wake up a little later. Maybe you’re just crazy.” She pauses and then shakes her head, “Metaphorically.”

“No, really, you get bigger when you kiss me. I’m really kind of surprised you continue not knowing anything about this.”

She begins to look a little worried. “That’s… that’s really not funny Tobias. I know this is a serious situation and you need to blow off some steam, but something like that… that would be Jackor changing me or something and…” She trails off, concern coming over her face before she shakes her head. “No, no you’re seeing things.”

“I’m not,” you say firmly. “What is happening to you?”

“I don’t know!” she says, throwing her hands up. “You’re saying crazy things and so was that Dryad and Gods, it’s like I’m a Titania or something, but that’s insane.” She points at herself. “Look at me! I’m tiny and angry!”

“You said you were getting nicer…”

She blanches. “Tobias please… stop joking about this.”

You cut off, turning your eyes away from the luggage as you focus on her, offering your hand out. “What does being a Titania mean?”

She looks at your hand hesitantly before slowly touching a finger with her hand. You can feel her little body shivering as she flaps her butterfly wings in the air. A moment later she whispers, “Titanias rule the Fairies. They are the nobility of our people and have a direct connection to Jackor and nature itself.” She shudders. “Titanias don’t have the same freedoms other Fairies do. They have power, but are basically slaves to responsibility.”

“I didn’t know,” you say, looking down. “I just thought…”

“Just… just don’t mention it again, please?” Abigail says, shuddering. “I feel like I’m on the precipice of something as it is, and if that’s it then…” She shakes her head and wipes tears from her eyes. “Just save Akela, don’t worry about me.”

“Hey, Abigail-” You’re cut off as she jumps back into your jacket. Though you want to speak with her more, you stop yourself and shake your head. No, best not to agitate her anymore. Instead, you turn back to the luggage to- ah, there it is. You stow the object in your [Rucksack], just in case. When you finish this you look back at your ley-mail and see Anderson’s reply appear.

 

“Tobias,

 

“This has developed far faster than expected. I feel for you that your friends have been taken, but you must remember that this is larger than you and them. You need to keep the focus here: Fiora is at the doorstep and she can trigger her plans at any time.

“I do not agree with complete aggression, but I suppose it’s too late at this point. I have sent word to the fort and told them to work with Lord Fullvora, but that is the extent of my influence in the city. I have made some arrangements though and, like the Lord Commander said, more Heroes are on the way. The Monster Lady is sending some investigators and a contingent of soldiers from the capital are coming. We will stop this if things go badly.

“As far as other help I may provide, I am sending a map of the mines and caverns as far as we know they go. They should be accurate, but there is always some leeway for changes made through that honeycomb of a town. They’ll be able to runic transcribe it at the fort for Lord Fullvora.

“Tobias, I won’t lie to you, you’re on your own for the most part. You need to stand firm. You can do this. You will not fail.

 

-Anderson.”

 

“Gee, thanks,” you mutter to yourself before powering off the device and finishing packing your kit. Taking a deep breath, you move to the door. When you put your hand on the doorknob, you look down at your jacket before saying,

“Don’t you worry, we’re going to end all this.”

“The captain is gathering his forces in preparation for the raid. They’re moving out as we speak and destroying the contraband, but it might take some time to actually enter the mines,” Clint says, nodding as you look over the maps while making your way back from the fort.

You point at the map of the town’s caverns and look up at Clint. “See this place? It’s far off from the other sections, but close enough that someone could come and go easily. This looks like a good as place as any to explore.”

He looks over at the map before frowning. “What’s the point?”

“We can’t make a move into the mines without Fiora noticing. Sending Clarissa, sweet, sweet, Clarissa, is non-threatening and Alice has already been exploring the mines without anything to show for it. She’ll be ignored.” You tap the map again. “But we shouldn’t be still. If we’re being watched then they know we’re up to something. If we head into the caverns though, they’ll think we’ll get lost in there and waste time.”

“Shouldn’t we wait for them to find the girls?”

“No time. If we can go in now and find our ‘Ghost’ friend, we’ll get more info on Fiora. I trust they’ll be able to bring back Saya and Ginelle without us. Besides I… I can’t just do nothing right now.”

“What makes you think she’ll be there?” Clint asks before frowning and thinking. “Oh, of course. If she needs somewhere to hide, this would be best. And with stories about Ghosts…”

“She’s clearly been haunting there,” you say, nodding your head. “You in?”

“Yeah,” he says, nodding. “Let’s do this.”

You roll up the map and head back into town. It’s a strange feeling, that niggling sensation again like you’re being watched. You hear a faint whisper in your mind and turn about, but see nothing there. Ugh, your nerves are killing you right now, that or your brain is acting up again. Perhaps both? Shaking your head, you continue walking until you reach an alley between two buildings built up into the side of the chasm.

To be fair, the alley is more of a gaping channel between the rock leading into an abyss, but in this town, it’s pretty much an alley. Both of you grunt upon looking at the damn thing, but you suck it up and head into the maw.

Due to the frequency with which these tunnels are used, torches are often kept in baskets near the entrances. Clint lights one and hands it to you, clearly meaning for you to lead the way. Gee, thanks. The warmth on your hand and the smell of burning pitch soon pervades you and it fills you with a strange sense of adventure, not that you needed more of that. To think, people live like this day in and day out… how odd.

The darkness surrounds both of you very soon after entering the caverns, the torch your only ship in the sea of darkness. Though you know exactly where you’re supposed to be thanks to the map, you feel the sensation of being watched increase by orders of magnitude. You begin to sweat a little as your shoulder blades itch, and you turn about at every little sound, worried that someone was following you. It doesn’t help that you also have to move the torch between your hands every so often because it heats up your arm too fast, to the point where it feels like your skin is on fire.

“Tobias? Are you alright?” Clint asks as you wave away an insect.

“What? Me? Fine?” you say a little hastily, wiping sweat from your brow. “Yeah, of course, why wouldn’t I be?”

“You’re acting a little… strange.”

“Honestly, you’re the strange one for not being a little worked up right now.”

Clint watches as you awkwardly scratch your neck and check the map. You pause, looking about the area of tunnel you’re in. Man, are these walls closing in or is it just you? Ha, right, it’s just you, though phew, this air is getting a little thin, right? You start breathing a little heavier as you look between where a tunnel turns and the map.

“If I were to have a hideout, it would be around this area… here.”

Clint nods in reply and readies his rifle, holding it at his shoulder. You both walk cautiously through the tunnels and into the chamber, though you make no pretense of having the advantage of surprise. So, it’s to your surprise when you find nothing there.

“Damn,” Clint says, clicking his tongue. “Think she’s just invisible?”

“No, wouldn’t make sense to waste energy like that, though it’s not like we were sneaky.” You mutter to yourself, looking at the map again. “She could be deeper in I suppose, this was just a guess…”

Clint looks at his timepiece and grunts. “This is taking quite some time Tobias, we have to be there when the girls get back or be ready to move in otherwise.”

“Yes, yes,” you say, walking about the edge of the room and comparing it to the map. “I suppose we’ll have to…” You trail off as you look at something in the wall. Or well, maybe the lack of something is more precise.

“Huh…” you muse as you reach out to feel the gap in the wall. As you do, you feel air blowing from the other side. Curious, you push in the rock and it slides out of the way, revealing a passageway to another tunnel.

You blink in surprise and even Clint looks a little flummoxed. Someone made a new tunnel down here? Without anyone noticing? Both of you look to each other before nodding. Looks like this is the right place then. Steeling yourselves, you enter into this new passageway and soon find light at the end of this tunnel. Curious, you walk to the edge of the tunnel and look in to where the light is coming from and whistle softly at what you see before you.

A large, naturally formed, cavern lays before you with the walls lined with lanterns. Inside sits various camping equipment and other supplies which would be needed for a long stay, as well as drilling and mining equipment near another tunnel on the far side of the cavern. The strangest thing though is the amount of explosives components present. Curiously you don’t see the end products, however.

Looking about, you notice a tent in the middle of the cavern shuffle and a young woman crawls out, some books and papers held in her arms. She grumbles a few times and rubs at a wound on her arm, pouting for a moment before sighing and looking up, only to notice the two of you. She goes stock still, face paling as Clint’s rifle points directly at her.

“Ah Hells,” she says, words echoing in the chamber. “That’s not according to plan.”

 

Chapter 100

“Go invisible and a bolt goes into your head,” you say, rolling up the map and putting it inside your coat pocket. “He won’t hesitate to do so again. We aren’t in the mood for your shit right now.”

“How did you find this place?” she asks while frowning, but staying still as you approach, making sure the firing lines are open. “And what do you plan to do?”

“You look pretty lucid for an insane person,” you say, looking her over.

“Insane? What are you talking about? Gods, what do you even want?”

“Hasn’t your mistress, Fiora, told you this? We want to stop her, to save this country from war?”

She rolls her eyes. “Yeah, sure, whatever.”

“What do you get from this?” you ask as you approach the girl. She really isn’t that old, is she? “What lies did she feed you to work with her?”

“She offered my sister and I power. Gave us the choice to rot in the plains or come with her. Said if we did good we’d get rewarded, get to ascend or something.” She shrugs. “It all made sense once that Chalan lady came around though. Touch our heads and next thing we know, everything just felt better.”

“You know, she put plants in your brain, right? It’s driving you insane, making you do things you wouldn’t normally do.” You wave about the cavern. “Like this, what are you doing here with all this mining equipment and these explosives?”

“Wouldn’t you like to know?” she says, giving you one smug expression.

“Yes. I would. I would also like to know where Fiora is hiding. Don’t think that you can hide this from me, because if you think Fiora is scary, you haven’t seen me when I’m mad.”

She merely shrugs and you grab her shoulder, the wounded one, and she gasps in pain, dropping the books.

“Now then, WHERE. IS. FIORA?” you growl out. She looks into your eyes with a flash of anger that is so irrational it makes you shudder despite your rage. It passes momentarily before her smile reappears on her face.

“Sorry, but your princess is in another castle. She’s running around the mines, getting ready for her big show, which you made her escalate the plans on sadly.” She sighs and taps her chin, despite you holding her and you start to feel like someone is terribly wrong here.

“Where is your sister?” you ask in a low voice. She blinks once before a shit-eating grin appears on her mouth.

“Ding, ding, ding! You asked the right question! Though a little late. I assume by now she’s too far for you to catch. I wonder though, did you assemble everyone out of the fort to chase after Fiora? To make this big old stink and leave the damn place unguarded?”

You begin to grow cold as she leans in toward you and whispers, voice practically oozing with venom, “Did you really think Fiora didn’t plan for this? So predictable little Tobias. If only you got here a few days sooner, the blood wouldn’t be on your hands.”

“What the fuck are you-”

The ground shakes violently as a massive rumble echoes through the cavern. You find yourself stumbling to a knee as you try to get your balance, releasing the girl in the process. The roof of the cavern begins to shudder as chips of rock fall atop you and dust fully covers your body. The shuddering stops soon after, but the feeling of vertigo and the falling rocks from the ceiling make it difficult to get your bearings.

You look over to see Clint recovering much the same, but the girl, apparently having known this would happen, is already making her way to the far tunnel. She waggles her fingers at you and shouts, “See you boys in the mines… well, if you make it out, that is,” before vanishing down the tunnel

“Fffffuuucccck!” you shout, slamming you fist onto the ground. A chunk of rock the size of said fist lands next to it and you look up in alarm as things continue to fall apart. You look to the tunnel she left down, but as you do it collapses inward, sealing it. Given Abigail didn’t start glowing, you suspect she did not die in the collapse.

“We have to go!” Clint shouts. Not wanting to leave empty-handed, you see on the floor a book on explosives and a notepad she dropped. You quickly scoop these up and hurry out as more rocks begin to fall. The two of you run into the other chamber as more and more of the tunnels begin to shake.

Dashing through the corridors mostly by memory, you find chips of rock falling here and there as distant shaking makes your footfalls awkward. You almost trip once, but Clint holds you steady, right as a massive cloud of dirt and rock flies into your tunnel from a side passage, blocking it off. As the rumbling chases behind, the sound of more and more rock collapsing, the two of you turn the corner to see light shining ahead, almost leaping out of the tunnel as a spray of dirt and rock chips follow after you.

Collapsing to your knees, you cough and wheeze particulate matter from your lungs. Your black suit is now coated white and brown, but you don’t care as you clear your eyes and get your breath back. Once you finally feel like you can breathe again, you look up, taking the time to notice your surroundings.

Townsfolk run about in panic as buildings shake and rumble, but appear to be structurally sound, for now. It seems they’re more preoccupied by something else. People point up to somewhere above the canyon and you follow their fingers, staring in shock at what you see.

Or well, what you don’t see.

Where the fort once stood, there was now a ruined mess. A massive crater now gapes on the side of the canyon wall. You watch as more of the fort literally slides down the side as it crumbles, raining debris on those assembled below. If they hadn’t left the fort when they did, the soldiers would all be dead, but you have a sinking feeling plenty still died… and it might be your fault.

“Gods no,” you say, putting your hands to your head. “Fiora played us like a damn fiddle!”

“Fuck!” Clint shouts, punching the ground. “Fuck, FUCK, FUCK!” He rages in a way you’ve never seen him rage before and he looks up at you with pure murder in his eyes as he growls,

“How the fuck could we have been so stupid?”

“I don’t know… maybe if we were smarter, saw through all this instead of jumping to conclusions…” you mumble, feeling a little despondent again. First she takes Akela, next she does this? Was this all pre-ordained for you to be the fool? Some kind of jester for her sick amusement?

The itching sensation grows worse as all the built-up anxiety and pressure begins to bear down upon you. Gods, if you’d just died that day in the Arboretum, none of this would have happened and-

You feel something distantly brush your shoulder and a voice says in your ear, “Hey, I didn’t go down a dirty-ass mine shaft to come back to find you moping.”

Surprised, you turn to find Saya standing there, a wan smile on her face. You blink a few times before hugging her close to you with all the power you have, sobbing as you say, “I’m so sorry, they took her, and I didn’t… I couldn’t…”

“Shhhh, they surprised all of us,” Saya says, gently rubbing your head. “This wasn’t your fault. Alice explained everything to us. We’re going to get this bitch, but I need you to get it together.”

You pull back and rub at your eyes to see Alice and Clarissa standing there, looking a little dirty but none the worse for wear, while Ginelle is helping up Clint. They give you reassuring nods and you feel yourself tear up again, but for another reason entirely. Gods, if it wasn’t for these people you would have lost yourself to despair ages ago, huh?

“What happened here…” Alice says, shaking her head and looking at the fort. You look back at it as well and compose yourself before telling the tale. Everyone frowns except Ginelle, who curses and slams her fist into her palm.

“Fucking Hells. I am SO tearing this bitch’s head off.”

“What did you find?” you ask Saya, voice still tired.

“Not much, we went down Shaft Two and inspected the mining constructs. Most of them look like they should be mining units and I used the goggles to confirm they weren’t illusions, but they’re all really old. I couldn’t find any new ones, but… I mean, I’m not Ophelia…” She trails off then before sighing and shaking her head. “Regardless, there wasn’t anything there. I’m surprised.”

“This was probably part of the ruse also, but from what we learned, they didn’t want you in the mines. And with what that bitch said…” You groan. “Gods, she better not have hurt either of them.”

“Hey, what’s that you’re holding?” Alice asks, and you blink before looking down at the items you took.

You look over the book, finding it to be detailed instructions explosive-making. Some sections are bookmarked and circled in places, clearly denoting the explosives they were making. It’s not exactly relevant, not anymore, but the other item, now that you have the chance to look over it, is a notebook with various notations written down by the Illusionist detailing their operations.

Despite it being a little, frankly, unhinged, at portions, you’re able to make it out. It seems that Fiora and Chalan had planned for these two to start sapping the fort even before she went to Loveura. They had utilized supplies sent into town from the mayor’s corruption in Loveura to build explosives and dig the tunnels while using their magic to keep away prying eyes. There’s no mention of why they were inside the fort itself today, but one would expect it had to do with the magitek fuel that was “confiscated”. If you hadn’t ordered Clint to start the process of removing the contraband, how much worse would that explosion have been?

As you reach the end of the notebook, you notice the dates. It seems they’ve been working on this for weeks, but only finished… yesterday.

Gods, if you hadn’t spent so much time with the other Illusionists- no, you can’t second guess yourself now. You’ve done enough of that as it is and there will be more time for your psychotic breaks later. Besides, you had to read through enough of these girl’s own psychotic ramblings to find what you were really looking for- a mention of where they would meet with Fiora:

Shaft One.

“Alice,” you say, holding out your hand. She blinks at you a few times before seeming to get the message and pulling out the communications device. You nod and observe the item before gritting your teeth and pressing the button.

“Fiora,” you say over the device. The hiss of static comes to you as you release the button and wait. It seems an eternity standing there in the dust clouds, surrounded by the panicking populace, but you endure it. You’re not in the mood for fear, no, you’re more in the mood to rip and tear someone’s head off.

“Tobias,” Saya says, putting her hand on your shoulder. You look to her and see the worry on her face, not merely for poor little Akela, but also for you. It takes you a moment to realize this and, with a shuddering exhalation of breath, you feel tension leaving your shoulders. Closing your eyes, you nod to her and then look back at the device.

It hisses static once more and you push the button in response before speaking in a cold, even tone. “Fiora, I know you can hear me.”

Again, nothing reaches you and you about throw the damn thing to the ground when you pause. Narrowing your eyes, you press the button again and say, “Over.”

“Oh there you are Tobias! I thought you still had something to say, over.” Fiora’s voice comes, distorted, but chipper. “See, I had your little bunny friend tell me how this thing works and clearly I’ve been doing it wrong, over.”

Before you can reply, she starts in again. “Did you like the show? I don’t know if you were outside to see it, but by the sounds of people coughing and those shouts everywhere, I assume you’re witnessing it, over.”

“Fiora, I’m tired of playing these games, over.”

“Did you hear that, your daddy is tired of playing games!” Fiora says to someone and a moment later you hear Akela’s small voice, “You smell like fish, over.”

Fiora sniffs on the line before speaking louder again. “Cute little girl you have there. Makes me wish I had one of my own.” She pauses for a moment, the line going to static before you hear, “Over.”

“Richard never would have wanted this, over,” you say in a perfectly flat tone. The line goes silent but for the static across the other side.

Fiora responds in an utterly cold voice that makes you shiver. “What do you know about Richard, you child?”

“You didn’t say, ‘over.’”

“You can ask me politely to slit your daughter’s throat you know, it would be faster, over.”

“Don’t. I will not threaten you, but you do not want to do that. I merely wish to talk, Fiora. Over.”

The line goes quiet again before she answers once more. “About what, dear Tobias? About how your little crusade for revenge has already failed? How everything is to crumble down around you and there’s never been anything you could do about it? Over.”

“No. I want to know why. I’ve seen so many things since Loveura, done so much. There’s blood that’s arguably innocent on my hands, and I want to know. Why did you do it? You can at least give me that, over.”

“You think I still have a choice in this? That my will is what drives all this? Tobias, you’re smarter than this, or so I thought. I do this because I no longer have any choice. I sold my soul and the cost was the life of the man I loved… over.”

You close your eyes and tap the device to your head before you whisper, “He’s not dead.”

“What.”

“He’s not dead. You have failed to free him from his fate. Instead of saving him, you damned him to a life of unending insanity.”

“You lie!” she hisses back over the device with murderous intent. “You fucking liar, he’s dead… he has to be. If he isn’t, then that means that I… I…”

“I took up his mantle. It has been my duty to eliminate those you and Chalan drove insane, but I would not kill him. Rest assured, he is safe from you.”

“Where?!” she practically screams into the device. “WHERE IS HE?!”

“Fiora, he’s baiting you, you idiot,” you hear, muffled in the distance over the comms device. It takes you a moment, but you recognize the voice as belonging to Chalan. So she did make it here after all…

“No, I am not baiting her, I am merely stating a fact. If she harms Akela or Ophelia, Richard’s location will be lost forever. You will have to rest in Phallia’s world knowing that your beloved is out there, beyond your reach, and not even in Nerg’s realm can you embrace him.”

You pause for a moment and say before releasing the button, “Over.”

“Tobias…” Clint says, looking worried. “Was it really wise to provoke her like that? She holds all the cards here.”

You hold up a hand, waiting as you look at the device. A moment later, Fiora replies again, this time much more calm. “Tobias, you seem to forget your position. I hold all the cards here, over.” Clint who holds his hands out in a “I told you so” manner. You roll your eyes as Fiora speaks again.

“Tell me where he is, and your little daughter gets to live, over.”

“The bunny gets to go too, over,” you say with a degree of finality. Fiora grumbles over the line before hissing,

“Fine. Now then, where is he?”

“Not so fast, over,” you say, shaking your head, though you know she can’t see it. “We’ll do this in person. I must be assured their safe conduct, over.”

“Don’t think me a fool Tobias, you can’t bait me out there.”

“Then I’ll come to you. Shaft One, is it not? Over.”

“How did you?… Never mind. Yes, it is Shaft One. If you wish to be so insistent upon this, you will come and you will come alone. OVER.”

You wince at the harshness of her last word before handing the device back to Alice, who looks at it with astonishment. Taking in a deep breath, you exhale slowly before looking out over your group and clapping your hands together.

“So! We have our opening!”

 

Chapter 101

No one says a word as they stare at you with horrified expressions. You blink a few times, looking at everyone before frowning and crossing your arms. “What? Something wrong?”

“Tobias, you’re saying that you’re going to go into the mines, by yourself, trade information for the hostages, and then… what? What happens next? She kills you where you stand for pissing her off and then kills both Akela and Ophelia?” Saya says, throwing her hands up. “This isn’t another time we can just make things up as we go, we need to have a real plan here or else you’ll…. you’ll…”

She begins to tear up, but you place a hand on her shoulder for reassurance. “As fun as that is, no, not this time. There’s much that we still don’t understand, but I promise you, we’re going to go in and we’re going to finish this, once and for all.”

You turn to look at the others before sighing. “We already had our speech before this started, so I won’t bore all of you with that again.”

Clarissa raises a wing. “I didn’t get a speech.”

“That’s fine, because you’re sitting this one out.”

Her mouth hangs open as she holds out her wings toward you. “What? Why? Tobias, I’ve shown you that I can help, I can fight if I need to, and… and…” Her face grows red as she stamps a taloned foot to the ground. “Give me a reason why I can’t come!”

“We’ll be underground and you won’t be able to fly well,” you say bluntly, to which she staggers backward, as if slapped across the face. You add, “And if things go badly, you’re the only one who can get the word out. You’re the only one who knows what has happened here and what it means.”

She slumps her shoulders and it takes a lot of effort to keep from walking over and hugging her. Giving her extra comfort right now might not give the right impression, and frankly, you don’t want her following you. Clarissa would only be a burden. That’s what you’ll tell yourself, though you know you’re just being a hypocrite. Won’t try to keep people away to keep them safe eh? It is truly important to have a back-up in case you fail, but really, you just don’t know what you’d do if you lost her. If you lost any of them.

Swallowing your pain, you turn to Saya and Ginelle. “I will enter the mines alone.” When they stand to make an objection, you hold up your hand and say, “However, you will enter in after me.” Digging in your jacket, you pull out a map of the mines.

They look over it, paying attention to the schematics for Shaft One. Ginelle frowns, apparently unable to understand it, but Saya’s eyes go wide as she points at an irregularity on the map. “How recent is this map?”

“It’s up to date as of right before the closure of Shaft One due to ‘Ghosts.'” You nod your head and smirk. “The miners must have found a deposit of something and were trying to excavate it, but had to abandon the work before it was finished. There appears to be more than one entrance into this new tunnel and one of them is small enough that I doubt anyone remembers it’s there.”

Alice looks over the map herself before frowning. “True, I don’t remember it being there. Even if illusions or whatever stopped me from finding them, they probably wouldn’t have hidden something like that either.”

Saya and Ginelle look to each other before nodding firmly. You reach into your [Rucksack] and hand over the [Chameleon Cloak] to the Badger Girl, who gives you a curious look, to which you say, “For added protection.”

“What’s the plan here?” Saya asks, looking over the map again. “We infiltrate in and wait for some kind of signal?”

“More or less, yes. I think the main thing I want you to do is make sure the hostages are safe, and to take out the other two Illusionists if you can manage it. I’ll try to keep Fiora’s attention while Clint and Alice come in from behind.”

Alice snorts, “Oh like the Hells I’ll just sit back there.”

You smirk. “I know you won’t and frankly, if she has any idea who you are, she’ll know that too. It’s dangerous to ask of you but-”

She waves her hand. “Yes, yes, I’ll go in and save the day without you lot doing much of anything. Four people and some constructs, right? Easy enough work.” She pats her sword and smiles broadly.

“Uh, well, I was hoping you’d charge in brash as can be and cause a ruckus, since that seems entirely expected of you. You’re a known player in this town, but you’re also a wild card. We can use that.”

She narrows her eyes at you before huffing and crossing her arms. “Bah, no respect around here from anyone.” Still, she has a smile on her face as she says, “Boss.”

You give her an odd look before Saya catches your attention again. “Tobias, let’s say we get in alright and we’re able to get Ophelia and Akela out of the way. How are we going to fight Fiora, Chalan, AND these two others? Frankly, I’m a little worried at our prospects…”

“I’d… thought of that myself. I have some new tricks up my sleeve, and I don’t think the other two Illusionists are anything special, necessarily. I think if we can take them out and hold Chalan at bay, we have a shot to take Fiora unaware.” You hesitate to continue speaking, but Saya waves a hand for you to continue.

“But…?”

“But… if things go badly, if it looks like we’re going to lose, then… then Saya I’m going to need to ask you to do something… forbidden.”

Saya’s face goes pale at this request. “Tobias… you don’t mean to ask me to…”

You close your eyes and exhale. “I know. It’s a last resort.”

Everyone goes quiet as they look at Saya. You open your eyes to see her staring at you with incredulity that slowly gives way to resignation. Her shoulder slump and she says, “You don’t know what you’re asking here.”

She shudders and then sighs out, “But I’ll do it. It’s that important.”

You put a hand on her shoulder and say, “Thank you.” She looks at you with haunted eyes before nodding slowly and exhaling.

“Alright… we have some ground to cover, I think.” She nods to you before looking out at the soldiers in the distance. “Should we…?”

“Would take too much time to organize them, and they’d be too messy besides. Their efforts are best spent trying to restore order here and preparing for the worst. Clarissa, for now, can you speak with the captain, if he’s alive?” She nods her head and you smirk at her. “Thanks. You’ve always been the best friend I could ever have.”

She looks down, tears coming to her eyes as she sniffs, trying to keep it all in. She’s unable to however, and runs up to you, giving you a big hug while bawling out, “Don’t you die on me Tobias Shady! You’re coming back with everyone and we’re going to have a fucking party for your Gods damned little girl and EVERYONE is going to be happy!”

You gently stroke her head before saying, “Of course. Chocolate cake and everything.”

“S-she likes vanilla better,” the Crow Girl sniffles, and you chuckle before pulling her gently off.

“Go. We’ll find you later.” She nods her head before taking a few steps back and then leaping into the air. You watch her for a moment before you sigh and point to the others. “Come on, let’s get going. You two have a long way to go, and the others need to keep a low profile far behind me.”

Everyone nods and you leave in groups, Saya and Ginelle going first under the cover of the cloak. You leave next a while later, alone. Or well, not entirely alone.

“Abigail,” you say as you walk. You get no immediate response and you’re forced to say, “I know you’re there. I need you right now.”

There’s a stirring and she appears, frowning up at you. “Need me? I’m not going to be much help down there.”

“And yet, you’re still here.” She goes silent, looking down with a strange expression on her face and you chuckle in response. “It must be difficult for you. Either way, you’re free from this once this battle is over.”

“Free to what, I wonder? If Jackor has other plans for me, then what am I to do?” She holds up a hand which glows softly with pale, white light. “The more I thought about what you said, the more I began to put the pieces together. It’s like a curtain is being lifted from my mind and it’s scary. Some… power is coursing through me, but I don’t yet know if I want to accept it.”

“Would you?” you ask in a gentle voice.

She looks up at you with a look of horror and sadness. “Tobias… you’re asking me to…”

“I know, it’s a lot, and it’s frankly very selfish of me, but… if you have the powers of a Titania, whatever they may be, would it not be best to use them?” When she doesn’t answer, you shake your head and say, “I’m sorry, that was too forward of me.”

She closes her eyes and sighs. “No, I get it, I just… I’ll have to think about it,” she says before retreating further into your jacket. “Thank you though… for considering me as part of your team. I know I didn’t really express it before but… it means a lot to me.”

“It’s been a ride, and I’m glad you’ve been along for it,” you say as you approach the mines. “Let’s hope this isn’t the end of the trip.”

“Nah,” she says, chuckling. “You’re too stupid to know when you’re beat.”

“True,” you agree with some mirth. “True.”

You look out over the entrance to the mines, a cave at the end of the canyon littered with reinforced scaffolding and crossbeams of wood and iron. It looks nothing so much like a gateway to one of the Hells. The interior is lit with lanterns hung at intervals, illuminating mine carts, discarded tools, and equipment, but as it stretches on further, you begin to lose sight of things as the all-consuming dark takes hold.

Confused and panicked people stray away from the mines, fear keeping them from such a place. You instead walk into the gaping maw, preparing yourself for the final battle. Whatever happens, for better or worse, you’ve made the bed. Now it’s time for Fiora to sleep in it.

Forever.

You always sort of assumed mines would be stifling hot, but it really isn’t. It’s cold more than anything, though you’re not certain if that’s because of the draft or your own emotions.

The entrance to the mines is mostly a hub leading to the other shafts, four in total now. Mine carts line the tracks leading off into the distance and mining equipment is seen along workbenches and lockers on the sides of the reinforced and hollowed out sections of rock. Here and there you see chunks of various metals in carts or bins, ready to be transported to the refineries, but since everyone evacuated the area it all seems as hollow as when it lay in the ground.

A rush of wind from deeper in the mines blows past and you shudder before looking toward Shaft One. The shaft stands to the center of the hub, clearly where the first miners began to dig into the rock. Years-old wood lining the sides of the entrance stand sentinel before the mine, as if judging you for entering. You pause before the structure and run your hand over the old, splintered wood, wondering how many years this place has been running and what it’s seen.

A giant number “1” stands painted atop the wood, though the paint is faded with wear. Cocking your head, you look back down the shaft to see the dark once more taking hold as visibility fades away. Looks like tales of Ghosts really did keep people away. You shake your head and grab a lantern from the nearby wall and then walk into the shaft.

Your footsteps, which normally would have echoed if not for the special soles on your shoes, still make a muffled noise as you wander down the shaft. All about you is broken, boring rock which seems to be no less mundane than anything anywhere else. You begin to wonder if anything of value is left here when you notice a small glint in the light. Frowning, you walk toward the glint in the wall and squint to see what it is.

A blue streak greets you. Just a thin line, apparently too small to bother mining, the mineral gives off a faint glimmer of color in the grey stone. You continue forward, seeing tiny streaks every now and then as the mine shaft opens and closes in height and width, depending on the needs of the miners. It’s a long, solitary walk, but you’ve remembered the map, and with your <Battle Focus> burning, you keep yourself from panicking again like you did before.

The shaft begins to widen out, and you start to move slowly as you see the tracks take a turn off to the side. You frown and look forward, noticing the tunnel that isn’t connected by the tracks. Looks like you found the newer one carved in to try and rescue the use of this shaft. Following down this path, you begin to notice faint light that is not from your own lantern and you stop, listening to voices echoing in the dark.

“Fool,” the voice of Chalan comes. “You should just kill him the moment he arrives. He’s not worth the trouble he can bring.”

“He’s a little piss-ant, he has no power!” Fiora shouts back. “He beat you though, didn’t he? Sent you scurry back to me like the rat you are.”

“A fluke, nothing more. At least I didn’t get sand in my face.”

Fiora goes quiet for a moment before hissing out, “At least my plan is still working. What happened to your little seedlings hmm? Sounds like they all failed to sprout, even that deluded girl and her ‘army’ I used my precious thief to gather resources for. Ah, if I ever catch that invisible little whore again, I’ll break her mind like a pane of glass.”

Chalan hisses, “That plan SHOULD have worked. I don’t know how the little ‘piss-ant’ managed to find them and kill them, but I’m not out of this yet. Besides, it’s your ‘setback’ in Loveura that’s cost us so much time as it is. How much longer is it going to take to make that silly cross-breed of yours now that you finally have a mana cycler?”

“It will be ready soon,” Fiora says. “I just need to extract some information before crushing this insect.”

“That better be it, or else the consequences will be-”

“I don’t need you, you know that? The Queen may have forced me to work with you, but there are forces above her and I’m far, FAR too important for you to harm me, as if you could.”

“You know nothing, Fiora,” Chalan says, voice growing quieter. You close your lantern cover and silently move closer as you strain to listen to her speak again.

“He has shown himself to be tenacious and unpredictable. All of the other Illusionists have been killed or removed from our hands, and we are but left to these two.”

Fiora sniffs. “Very well, though your other plans have failed, they will be have to be enough. Even one more Mindflayer will sow enough chaos to make this work.”

One of the twins speaks up then, her voice loud in excitement. “Mistresses! What is a Mindflayer? Does this have to do with our reward?”

Fiora laughs heartily, “Yes it does, little Illusionist! You will gain power you cannot even believe for your service.”

“T-thank you,” the girl says back. “When… when do we receive this?”

“Soon,” Chalan says, voice impatient. “Very soon.”

By this time, you’ve crept far enough that you run into danger of being seen. You set the lantern down for those following later and you mentally prepare yourself for what you’re about to do. Once you’ve calmed down, you activate <Heart of Darkness> and fade into the shadows.

You enter into a large, open cavern. The small flickers of blue you saw before are magnified in here to become large, stretching veins of ore that glitter in the small light of the few lanterns in the room. Multiple scaffolds line the walls and small tunnels made for mining new veins dot all around the rock.

There’s no doubt that this room was important to the mining operation, but with a simple illusion, even Alice and her magic sword would have missed this place. And without finding her quarry or her Ghost, it would stay abandoned until the all-clear was given. Well, that’s what you would do, anyway.

Looking into the cavern, gathered in the center is Fiora in her Mindflayer form, Chalan, the two Illusionists, and your companions. You sigh inwardly in relief as you see Akela and Ophelia whole, if not fully hale. They sit, ropes around their arms and legs, looking glumly at the ground. Well, Ophelia does, Akela just looks pissed. Good girl.

It takes you some maneuvering to find a safe path to the center of the room while avoiding the light. As you do, you notice something odd about where they’re standing, and you pause as you realize what it is. Behind Chalan and Fiora, there is another statue of Phallia sitting upon a plinth, forming an altar much like the one back in Loveura. Looking down at the ground, you see small plants grow around the altar, as if supplicants gathering to mass. With no sun in here, and clearly no water, how did they grow? The implications are disturbing.

The last thing you notice, however, is a large magitek device, similar to the one Ophelia had in the bowels of the Manufactorum: A mana cycler, and this actively running a cycle. Given the empty vials nearby, you have a sneaking suspicion what is inside it.

When the lanterns they’ve carried into the room form an overlapping column of light, you click your tongue, unwilling to go much further. Well, you’re about thirty feet from them and you figure it’s far enough. Sighing, you take one step further, far enough to be seen, and uncloak yourself.

“Hello, Fiora.”

 

Chapter 102

Everyone snaps their heads toward you, going quickly into battle stances. Everyone except for Fiora, who merely looks at you and raises an eyebrow before pursing her lips. She clacks her tongue and says,

“Oh. It’s you.”

You shrug, holding your hands up. “You asked me to come here. At least you held up your end of the bargain.” As you say this, you wave toward the two Monsters held hostage. “Now then, let’s get this over with.”

“Not so fast,” Chalan says, placing her hand to Ophelia’s neck. Small vines begin to creep out of her skin and caress the Rabbit Girl’s face, making her shudder with fear and revulsion. “You’re not exactly the one in a position of power here.”

“You say that, and yet I bet you that Fiora would be quite angry if she didn’t get the information she wants from me.”

“Who cares what she thinks?”

Fiora gives Chalan a steady look and the woman’s eye twitches a few times before she slowly backs off and shakes her head. The Mindflayer closes her eyes and steps forward, flickering from the Monster to the human form as she attempts to play you into her illusion. You know what she truly is though, and it fails, holding her firm in her purple, shining skin. The Monster looks you up and down and then says, “Tell me where he is first, and you’ll have your bargain.”

You cock your head, <Battle Focus> allowing you to keep calm and steady. “No, I think not.”

Her eyes flatten and she says in a low voice, “When did you become so strong willed?”

“When you drove our mentor to madness.”

She grits her jaw as her tentacle hair begins to stir. “Don’t start this again, I will just kill you if you do.”

“Throughout all of this, the strangest thing is that you never asked how I managed to overcome the insanity you put upon me.” She blinks as you bring this up, a look of confusion and mistrust coming over her expression. You hold up your finger and say, “Jackor made me a deal, and I was not in the right state of mind to refuse.”

“Jackor…” she snarls, hackles rising. “No wonder you’re a thorn in my side. Just as annoying as that piece of shit known as a God.”

“Yes, well, he helped me out anyway,” you say, tapping your head. “But not even he could fix what you did to Richard. It was too much, he was too far gone. You did this to him, and if you find him again, you must understand that he will barely know who he is.”

Your words, bladed as they are, are merely a vessel for you to inject your <Insight of Suffering>. Fiora wavers, clearly not seeing through what you’re doing, and she begins to look about as the guilt sets in. “What?… No, no that wasn’t my intention. He left me no choice, and I was going to free him, it was that damn Badger and… but Phallia she… no, no I wasn’t supposed to have done that, it wasn’t supposed to have gone like that and…” She begins to mutter to herself, attention not focused upon you anymore.

Chalan shouts at her, but Fiora is clearly not paying attention. You take a step forward, but as soon as you do, Fiora snaps up and her hair, which seemed out of reach, suddenly stretches forward and wraps about your neck, constricting your breathing and making you cry out in pain as the blades dig in slightly. She snarls at you, eyes wild, and says, “YOU WILL NOT TRICK ME AGAIN!”

You cough once before gritting your teeth and saying, “You know how to see the truth of this. Do it Fiora, I know you know how.”

She blinks once before her purple face becomes flushed. The pressure increases upon your neck and in response you force forward <Cupid>, driving up her feelings of lust for Richard, which easily takes hold.

Doing your best to shout, you manage out, “DO IT!

Fiora puts her hands to her head and screams before pulling you close to her and slamming her hands against your face, pulling it to hers, eye to eye. Her eyes, red and wild, bore into yours, and you feel a lurching sensation as your mind is pulled into hers as she uses the [Eye of Fear].

You feel as if you’re floating, though you cannot feel anything. Instead, all you can see about you are windows, all showing the same thing. In the center of the Arboretum stands Fiora in her human form, dagger in hand. It drips blood onto a corpse on the ground, and you look down to see Richard laying there, unmoving. Next to him, however, lays another corpse, and you realize that it is Fiora herself. You look back up sharply to see Fiora’s visage having changed to her Mindflayer form. She begins to laugh, the pitch rising and falling without any pattern, clearly insane.

Something pulls at you again, and you feel your mind being dragged back into your body. Everything seems to snap back into place and you gasp, breathing in ragged breaths. In front of you stands Fiora, who stares at you, a small trickle of tears rolling down her cheeks. In her eyes you see a look of horror and deep sadness, and you know exactly what she saw.

“You lied to me… your greatest fear has nothing to do with Richard at all,” she says in a voice barely above a whisper.

“Not anymore. I have found equally important people, and I won’t let you take them away.” You look into her eyes as you say this, your own tearing up, though not from fear of her, no, you no longer fear this broken and abused woman.

“FIORA!” Chalan shouts, stomping over to the two of you before grabbing the Mindflayer’s arm. “That’s it, it’s time to kill him. No more games.” The flesh of her hand explodes into a large plethora of vines and flowers that writhe like serpents.

“You’re right, the games are over,” you say, smirking. Chalan gives you a confused look before flipping about just as Saya appears from under the [Chameleon Cloak] and slits throat of the closest of the two young Illusionists guarding the captives.

Things happen very quickly then. Chalan turns and runs toward the intruders, shouting for the other Illusionist to attack. The other girl, the one you wounded before, stands there, staring in horror at the dying form of her sister instead of attacking while Ginelle appears out of the cloak herself, flying toward Chalan with a shout. The two collide with each other, and the Badger bores the woman to the ground in a flurry of vines and claws. Saya hurriedly cuts the ties upon the two captives and pulls them out of harm’s way.

Fiora snaps her attention to the scene as well and you use the confusion to slip out from her tentacles and push away from her, rolling out of the way and fading back into the dark as her tentacle hair flails. You feel something pull at your mind as the ground beneath you shifts and cracks, threatening to drop you into a pit, but you snap into focus and dispel her illusion.

You return back into sight, remembering that she can actively [Project] to people she can’t see. Her hair tentacles flare up into the air as she stalks toward you, more furious than you’ve ever seen her.

“TOBIAS!” she screams, rage almost palpable about her. “THIS LITTLE GAME HAS GONE ON LONG ENOUGH!”

“Oh yeah?!” you shout back, preparing your defenses. “Maybe you should pay attention somewhere else, huh?”

To her credit, she doesn’t even break stride, merely leaning backward as a magitek shot passes through the air where she was walking a moment before. She seems to fade from existence for a moment before reappearing before you, taking you aback. Her arm raises to strike you, but before it can, the glow of a sword flashes in the lantern-light

For all her skill, Fiora did not expect a sword slash toward her. Alice’s blade, glowing with power, slices through a tentacle, throwing out a spray of blood and causing her to scream as she pulls away. Alice doesn’t allow her to get far though and steps in to the attack, her normally perverted face utterly focused on the assault.

Her blade flashes in the darkness, a beacon of light, and she forces Fiora back. Taking the moment to recover, you shout, “That’s not according to plan!”

“You talked too much and they took the glory!” Alice says, going through a series of stances. Fiora seems to blur and shift about the woman, dodging all the blows, but the pressure she’s putting on the Mindflayer keeps her from being able to do much more than survive. It’s amazing to watch, but you instead take the time to survey the scene about you.

Saya had managed to get Ophelia and Akela out of the way, but Ginelle is still wrestling with Chalan, no victor seemingly in sight. A large mass of green-blooded vines and flowers has sprouted from the woman’s body, making it look like she has a garden growing from her. It creates a strange and disturbing picture as her eyes glow a bright and vivid green.

Your eyes search for the other Illusionist, making certain she doesn’t attack anyone. This doesn’t take long though, as you watch her cradling the corpse of her sister, covered in her blood as she weeps tears into the wounds. She’s an open target, so why hasn’t Clint-?

Another shot rings out, missing Fiora again, but forcing her to shift to the side enough for Alice to slam the hilt of the blade into Fiora’s stomach, driving the Mindflayer back. Alice smirks broadly and chuckles, lifting her blade to finish it with an elegant slice.

Well fuck you, she’s going to do it-

She is unable to deliver the blow, however, as Ginelle suddenly collides into her, sending the two toppling to the ground yards away in a heap. You attention snaps back to the direction Ginelle came from to find Chalan… or something that looks like Chalan anyway.

She stands there, dress ripped and torn, barely hanging onto her body as her entire right arm is covered in plant-life, vines dragging down to the floor as she breathes in ragged breaths. Her face is a mask of fury, through it is cracked and splitting at points as green blood trickles down, little vines writhing from gaps within. She cries out in rage and stalks toward the fallen woman when another report sounds and blood sprays everywhere as a ragged, burning hole appears in her chest.

She looks down, blinking at where the magitek bolt punctured her, fragments of her ribcage showing. Slowly, she turns to where Clint is kneeling, hidden well in a corner of the mines atop some scaffolding with a few crates on it and, as she does, you begin to see the vines crawling into place in her torso, knitting and repairing her body as organs, laced with plant-life, are grown from nothing. Before Clint’s unmodified weapon can cycle for another shot, she shouts, “FIORA!”

The Mindflayer doesn’t have to think twice. You slam an illusion into Fiora, something to knock her off balance, but it’s too late. The gunslinger curses, dropping his weapon as he rolls out of the way of something invisible, causing him to snap one of the boards of the wooden structure and falling to the second level with a sharp, “CRACK!”

The man cries out in pain, his damn back clearly bothering him more than he let on. Cursing yourself for allowing this to happen, you shout to the others with <Battle Voice>, “Get up! Stand firm and we’ll take then down!”

Alice and Ginelle have come to unsteady feet by now, but the element of surprise is gone. Fiora and Chalan stand before you, Monstrous in their visage, faces coated in rage. Though they appear to be outnumbered two to one, neither seems particularly afraid. Fiora looks out over all of you, her eyes somehow managing to keep tabs on both Alice and you at the same time, but she makes no move other than to say, “Do you think it has been long enough?”

“I suppose,” Chalan says, touching the flower that has sprouted over the flesh on her exposed chest. “Anyone would have been driven over the edge by now from such a thing.”

You question what that means when you hear the most gut-wrenching howl you can imagine. Filled with grief so raw it hurts to listen, you chance a gaze to the other Illusionist, who sits before the altar, covered in the blood of her dead sister.

She holds her sister’s corpse as she shakes violently, wailing with eyes open far beyond what a human should be capable of. Her expression is wild, filled with an insanity that was not evident before. She barely seems to have human intelligence in her eyes any longer, everything replaced with grief and fury. Her shriek reaches a crescendo and the altar behind her bursts into light.

“You have your reward,” Chalan says darkly, a sick smile coming to her twisted visage.

The girl’s cries abruptly vanish into choked convulsions as she shudders and twists, body contorting in erratic motions. You can’t help but watch the scene with morbid curiosity though you know what’s happening here, and it terrifies you.

The Illusionist begins to gurgle as her hair thickens and lengthens, growing taut and almost waxy. Her skin begins to darken as she begins the process of Monsterization into a Mindflayer.

You step forward and shout, “Saya! Stop her!”

Your girlfriend appears from behind the altar again, ready to strike the woman down, but Fiora seems to have expected this and Saya slips, falling onto the floor with a heavy thud wholly unlike herself. This gives Chalan time to fling herself toward Saya, mass of plants prepared to smash into the Monster’s head. Recovering her senses, it’s all Saya can do to roll out of the way as Chalan goes to protect the newly born Monster.

Alice and Ginelle take the opportunity to spring into battle as well, driving in on Fiora. The Mindflayer is not caught off guard and stands her ground as the two charge. Alice makes a feint while Ginelle strikes with her claws, but it’s obvious to you that the attacks are futile. The main reason you can tell is because they’re attacking the air about three feet to the left of Fiora.

“Shit,” you say, turning to see Clint still trying to pull himself together. “Up to me…”

You run to the side as Chalan focuses on Saya, pulling your knife out and preparing to attack the transforming Monster. Her skin is nearly fully purple and her hair has formed the long, bladed tentacles that Fiora sports and are so iconic of the Mindflayer.

And then Fiora is there before you, barring your path and swinging a tentacle toward your face. You fall back onto your ass in panic before feeling something sharp and jagged slash across your wrist. Crying out in pain, you look down to see that you’d managed to cut yourself with your knife and the wound is deep, draining a lot of blood. You begin to feel a little woozy when Fiora slams her knee into your face, sending you flying backward and causing you to crumple into a heap.

“Damnit…” you whisper to yourself. Killed by a fucking mistake. Dropping your knife and cutting yourself in the final battle? That’s fucking stupid. So very… very- wait.

Your eyes snap open as you look down at your wrist to see the wound gone. Fucking bitch. Pushing yourself up as she comes to finish you off, you quickly cast an illusion of you going for your [Pocket Sand]. She flinches, allowing you to duck and roll to the side, not daring to get within reach of those tentacles again. The two of you square off while Chalan fights Saya in the distance, Ginelle and Alice realizing they’d been had only moments later.

Unfortunately Fiora’s little scheme had worked. She bought plenty of time for the new Mindflayer to be born. Both you and Fiora can feel the change in the magical energies of the room and you turn to see the Monster rise from where she knelt. She looks down at the blood on her clothing and wipes a finger in it, studying the red liquid before putting it to her lips. She appears to savor the taste for a long while before her eyes open to reveal bright red irises.

Things go downhill from there. Immediately a shriek like a Banshee rips through the cavern, and your party staggers at the force of her illusion. You’re able to dispel it quickly enough and Alice manages to keep balance, but Ginelle and Saya go down, forcing Alice to stagger to Saya’s defense as the plant ridden Chalan takes the opportunity to attack.

The new Mindflayer laughs violently and attacks as well, hair whipping in frenzied strikes. Ginelle looks dazed and confused, taking multiple blows all over her body before being thrown across the room, ground throwing up small chips of rock and blue ore as she skids across it. She struggles to her feet, but quickly puts a hand to her head, unable to stop the assault which now ravages her mind.

You want to go and help her out, but you’re unable to do so as you feel another shift in magic and you have to snap back to Fiora, trading illusory blows with each other. Distantly, you can hear Chalan fighting with Alice and Saya, but the battle does not seem to be going well- not that you’re faring much better. Every blow you deal to Fiora, she comes back with two more, and even a handful of white sand, pulled from your [Pocket Sand] manages to do little to dissuade her.

You can feel a sinking sort of terror filling you as you fight. This is never going to end in your favor, not with such odds stacked against you, is it? Jackor drove you into a wall because he was desperate and you fucking ran with it. If things continue the way they’re going now, you’ll lose everything with nothing to show for it.

Though it pains you, you cry out, “SAYA! DO IT!”

Fiora spares a glance to Saya, who breaks from combat as Alice steps in to hack off another mass of vines sprouting from the rapidly disfigured Chalan, who seems to have grown in mass as more and more plants sprout from her abused body. The swordswoman is able to hold her off enough for Saya to reach the corpse of the other Illusionist.

You hurriedly strike at Fiora, throwing her back on the defensive this time, keeping her from outright attacking Saya. Though it grates upon your sanity, you create an illusion of spreading yourself into copies and attacking her from all angles. Fiora counters with the same, and through chance, the two of you connect hands with each other as you grapple, though you’re forced to break off as her remaining tentacles thrash at you.

Saya begins to recite an incantation behind you and Fiora’s attention snaps back to Saya as she shouts, “WHAT ARE YOU DOING?!” The momentary lapse allows you to grab a rock and throw it at the Mindflayer, striking her in the head and dazing her long enough for Saya to finish.

The final words of the incantation fade from Saya’s lips and she stands there, looking skeptically at the circle of blood she scrawled with the offering in the middle for half a second before all lanterns in the room suddenly gutter out. The combats cease, and the only sound that can be heard for a long while is the beating of hearts and panting of breath.

A horrifying crunching sound fills the silence, like bones being snapped for their marrow in the jaws of some beast. It picks up in tempo, faster and faster until a scream so quiet, it’s almost inaudible is heard, and then your hair stands up as goose bumps appear up your arm. You find it difficult to breathe for a moment before then the lights suddenly flare to life again and, standing in the circle, hands held before her upon her customary apron, is Xanthia.

She smiles with that disturbing grin, taking in the scene as if she belongs here. The Shoggoth nods her head before looking to Saya, smile never fading. The younger Monster backs up slightly as Xanthia steps out from the circle and places a hand gently on her cheek as she speaks.

“Saya… you’ve summoned me again. Oh, dearest child, I thought I had raised you better than this. You know that this place cannot contain me, and yet you do so anyway. Why?”

“We… had no choice. We had to… to ask for your help, in stopping them.”

Xanthia turns her head, a fluid motion that goes almost a full 180 degrees. Her eyes shine as she locks gazes with Fiora before turning back to Saya. “Child… I have borne such love for you over these years. Yes, I will help you, however…” She places her other hand onto Saya’s face, and your girlfriend gasps, eyes going wide.

“I wish for something more than mere blood.”

She begins to chuckle in a manner that makes your bones itch, forcing even Fiora to look visibly agitated. Saya begins to scream as her skin turns black and then seems to meld into Xanthia’s flesh, the two creatures flowing together.

You watch in absolute horror was they become a pool of dark sludge, bones of a skeleton poking out from the murk, and then a moment it rises up back into the shape of Saya, though she wears the maid outfit that normally adorns Xanthia. She stands stock still, eyes closed, and no one makes a move for a long while.

“Fuck this,” Chalan says, swinging her plant-covered arm like a club toward Saya. Before she can connect, Saya lifts an arm and the plants just sort of… melt as they pass through. Chalan steps back, looking at her arm in horror as the plants regrow, but slower, as if afraid to do so.

You feel a chill pass down your spine and you look to the merged Monster, asking in a low voice, “Saya?”

She opens her eyes then, and with terror you see that instead of the clear eyes of a human, now sit the glowing yellow orbs of a Shoggoth. Her smile turns into that unnatural grin that Xanthia favors, twisting Saya’s face in disturbing ways. The ground around her begins to shudder as tentacles of inky darkness writhe and shoot up, forcing you and Fiora to separate to avoid the attacks which seem horrifically indiscriminate.

The new Mindflayer and Ginelle, who had been caught in the grip of the Monster, try their best to dodge out of the way, but a tentacle grabs onto the newly Monsterized girl and begins to dissolve them, the Mindflayer shrieking in panic and pain as it happens.

“Well, you asked for my help,” Xanthia says, looking over her arm as if she doesn’t notice the screams. More and more inky blackness seems to bleed from her, driving all of you away as it reaches up and grabs for you, unnatural and tormented faces appearing to snap at nothing. She turns to you and spreads out her arms.

“Well, here I am.”

 

Chapter 103

You stare in utter horror and disbelief at what you’ve just seen. Xanthia had taken Saya and… oh… oh Gods no. Akela cries out in panic in the far corner of the room as you place a hand to your face, the realization of your actions coming to you now as the gibbering mass of darkness flows toward you.

“We all have to face our fears eventually, fool,” Fiora says, and you look up to see her staring intently at Xanthia. “You are inconsequential now. I will end your little mistake here and then drag all of you screaming to the pits of Nerg for summoning this abomination.” She raises her hands and snarls.

Xanthia merely smiles with Saya’s lips.

Fiora steps before the encroaching darkness as everyone else, including Alice, backs away, not wanting to get too close to the inky morass. The other Mindflayer had managed to get loose, though she lost part of her tentacles in the process, and is currently backing away herself, face running through a variety of expressions, as if not certain how to feel.

Xanthia’s gaze is squarely fixed upon the oncoming Fiora, though her expression never changes. The encroaching murk of her body bubbles and oozes across the floor of the cavern, and faint echoes of screams are heard. It comes to merely feet away from Fiora when the Mindflayer snaps her hand forward in a quick, jerking motion.

The darkness recoils, as if struck. You look in shock as Xanthia’s expression flickers for just a moment before returning to the smile. She speaks again in Saya’s voice, each word cutting you as it comes out. “Oh, that is interesting. I have not met a mortal who would stare into the abyss.”

“I’m sure you haven’t because you stare back,” Fiora says, sniffing. “You don’t belong here, abomination.”

Xanthia chuckles and attacks again, but one moment Fiora is standing before you, the next she’s in front of Xanthia, walking over the pool of blackness. The Shoggoth reacts immediately, her tendrils snapping back to her to close upon Fiora like a trap. Moments before she is engulfed, Fiora reappears right where she was standing before, expression unchanging.

She blinks and then looks at Fiora in confusion. It’s an expression you’d seen numerous times on Saya’s face, but with those eyes, it appears wholly alien to you. She does not immediately revert to the smile, but instead takes the moment to look at Fiora with more rapt attention. The Shoggoth takes a step forward, her… well, Saya’s feet causing the ground to hiss and sizzle as she melts it with the composition of Saya’s body.

As she walks, you notice something odd. Where the acidic darkness had spread, the rock beneath has been eaten away, revealing an utterly smooth layer of faintly glowing blue stone. You gasp in realization and your gaze shifts to the altar, whose sides are warped and melted, and notice that the crystals near it are duller than the rest. Nearby the mana cycler, which somehow is still running, despite looking like a beaten up can, also sits in a pool of drained crystals.

There’s little time to contemplate this before you attention snaps back to the duo in the center who are now standing face to face, eyes locked. They’re still as stone, painting a tableau of conflict, though neither look particularly angry. What strange and unimaginable things are occurring in this mind war, you can barely comprehend, nor do you want to. You’re not certain Fiora can survive, but the one advantage she has is that she’s already insane and would not be driven past the brink when dealing with the mind-rending horror that is Xanthia.

Ah, but this is your moment though, isn’t it? You can rush forward and stab Fiora, ending this all now. You signal to Alice to charge her with you and end this damn thing. Then you can convince Xanthia to let go of Saya (somehow) after finishing off the others, and it will all be over. Gritting your teeth, you grab your knife and charge toward Fiora with Alice, intent on removing her from this world. As you get within a few yards, however, Chalan crashes down before you, throwing the poor Hero backward to crack her head on a rock and slip into unconsciousness. Just your luck…

Where once the mature beauty had been, now sits a creature who only vaguely resembles a woman. Her lower body still has the vestiges of humanity, though vines sprout here and there around wounds in the thighs, and her uncovered loins have flowers growing from them. One of her arms has become nothing more than a seething mass of plant life, and her chest has a massive flower upon it, slowly dripping white, milky nectar from the center. Her breasts are either gone or hidden inside the mass of plant life, though her other arm is still vaguely human, if swollen and misshapen.

Her face has split open some, merging with the morass of flowers on her arm, stringy strands of hair clinging to her skull. One eye stands out through it all, and it glows with a bright green like an eldritch fire. She opens her mishappen mouth and hisses, “This is where it ends for you.”

“Oh,” you say as she charges at you, faster than you can believe.

You hurriedly dodge of the way as she comes charging, but she flips about and a vine wraps around your chest, constricting your breath. You can feel your ribs start to crack under the pressure, and you hurriedly lash out with an illusion.

Though sloppily made, she cries out in panic, dropping you to the floor as she holds her arm out before severing some perfectly hale vines. They regrow shortly after though, and she turns upon you again.

“Oh, don’t like that, huh?” you say, holding up your hand and feeding another illusion of fire into it. “Fire bad, huh?”

She trudges toward you again and you throw the ball at her, but she shrugs it off, not at all amused at your attempts. You frown momentarily and then curse. Right, that was WAY too obvious. She knows damn well you can’t make fireballs AND how illusions work. You’ll have to do something more realistic.

Of course, you’re not given much opportunity to think of anything as you have to duck out of the way of another attack and roll backward into-

Nothing.

You fall off a ledge, flailing in panic as you do. You weren’t paying attention it seems and didn’t see the ledge there at all. As you fly through the air, you find it quite odd that a ledge would be here, even though the floor is smooth and-

With a start, you snap back into yourself just in time to avoid getting crushed to death by Chalan. You scrabble away as chips of mana crystal burst forth from the ground, creating a minor detonation which forces Chalan to pull back and howl in pain, magical flames licking at her arm. As she puts them out, it gives you time to survey the area.

Standing off in the distance is the form of the other Mindflayer, who looks at you with contempt. Crumpled on the ground next to her feet is Ginelle and fear momentarily grips you as you realize that she might be dead. With Saya gone to Xanthia, Ginelle down, and both Clint and Alice incapacitated, you’re alone against both of these monstrosities.

“Abigail…” you say with some urgency. “I could really use a hand right now.”

You get no reply from your jacket and you spare one glance down before having to dash away again, right into a wall of spikes. Pain lances into your chest as one punctures your lungs. Finding it difficult to breath, you cough once before your senses snap back into rationality. This damn wall isn’t here, it’s just an illusion. Fucking Hells though, the pain still resonates through your body and you can feel your mind growing sluggish from the constant abuse.

The Mindflayer stamps her foot to the ground and shouts, “You bastards killed my sister! You’re ALL GOING TO DIE HERE HAHAHAH!”

“Just try me, bitch!”

Throwing an illusion to trip up Chalan, you seize the chance to run straight for the Mindflayer. You feel a rumbling and look up to see rocks slamming into the ground near you, creating huge explosions in the mana crystals around you. Oddly enough, the flares of the exploding crystals don’t cause the rest of detonate, but the blasts send massive chunks of stone shrapnel into you, causing you to shout in pain. Somewhere, you know this is an illusion, but you can’t quite keep it together enough to fully dispel it. So you just accept them and keep running.

The Mindflayer looks a little startled at your tactic, but the illusions don’t change, instead increasing in frequency. Now that your mind is cleared of the burden of trying to resist the illusions, you dodge past the falling rocks, the explosions of mana throwing up more and more stone and crystal upward. Nonetheless, you continue forward, closing ground between the two of you in a heartbeat.

She steps back in confusion and a massive rock slams onto the ground, blocking her from sight. Your vision goes white as the explosion hits, your skin growing hot from fiery pain, but you push through, mind and body protesting in horror as you dive at the Mindflayer, knife held before you, ready to plunge it straight into her heart.

The knife passes through empty air however, and you stumble to a knee, dropping the weapon. Panting from the exertion and the failure, you look to the side, head swimming, to see the Mindflayer standing there, a look of annoyance on her face. Before you can cry out, she has you in her tentacle hair. She pulls you up to her and she places her long nails to your throat, hard enough to draw blood.

“Admirable, but foolish. I wonder sometimes, who is the insane one here? I would give you to Chalan, but she does not deserve the pleasure. I will kill you like I did the Badger, by breaking your mind until you’re nothing more than an ANIMAL.” She leans in and smiles wickedly before laughing. “YOU’VE LOST. EHAHAHHAHAH-”

She cuts off abruptly as she jerks forward, her talons gliding across your neck, digging furrows into your skin before her tentacles drop you. You stumble backward onto your knees and hold your neck as you see her stagger. Blinking in confusion, you see something curious waggling behind the stunned Mindflayer. A pair of flopping, brown ears appear and you look to the side to see the form of a battered and panting Ophelia clutching a large rock.

Her ears go totally straight as she shouts, “NOW TOBIAS!”

You only hesitate for a moment before struggling to your feet grabbing the knife from the ground. The pain from the earlier exertions and the most recent assault flares, but you let it all wash over you as you lash out with the knife and jam it into her chest.

The Mindflayer’s eyes go wide and she shouts in shock before blood begins to gurgle from her throat. She convulses, and a stream of incoherent magic appears in your mind, but you just pull out your knife and stab, stab, stab over and over again until she stops moving in your arms. With shaky fingers, you drop the knife as the Mindflayer slumps to the ground, dead.

“Holy shit…” you say, shuddering. “That… was easier than-”

A force like a ton of bricks hits you feel yourself flying across the room as a powerful force bears you straight into the scaffolding on the other side of the cavern. This time the damage is not just mental, and you feel something in you crack. A rib, probably. Gasping for air, you look up to see the hulking form of Chalan before you.

“H-hey,” you manage to croak out before she throws you across the room, where you hit the ground hard enough to black out for a moment. When your vision comes back into focus, you realize that you were thrown to where you were before, and that Ginelle is no longer where she was laying.

You cough, a few speckles of blood coming out with the spittle. Ophelia staggers up to you and rolls you over, holding you tight.

“H-holy shit Tobias, you’re really hurt.”

“Heh, you’re getting good at sneak attacks.”

“Tobias! Holy fuck, did Richard teach you nothing about reading the room?”

“I must have slept through that- gah, alright this hurts.” You take a few, gasping breaths for a moment before asking, “Where is Ginelle?”

“Ah… Ginelle? She… she was…” Ophelia trails off before looking over and pointing at something. “She’s alive! Oh thank Gods, but what is she doing?”

You have Ophelia help you up enough to see that Ginelle standing before Chalan, her shoulders heaving with effort. The Badger Girl throws her head back and roars savagely, far past anything you had seen previously. She dives toward Chalan and the plant hulk responds in kind, charging at her. When they meet, instead of being annihilated, Ginelle throws a savage blow to Chalan’s face with enough force that her opponent staggers.

“Where are the constructs?” you ask Ophelia, watching as the two slug it out. Ginelle takes a blow across the face that would have snapped your neck, but keeps on fighting, using her arms to rip and tear at the plant matter when it tries to ensnare her. The power she shows is so raw, so unfocused, and yet it surpasses anything you’ve seen from her up to this point. It’s almost as if she somehow reverted back to the time before the Grand Wizard’s meddling!

“The con… structs?” Ophelia says, seeming dazed for a moment. She shakes her head then, ears wiggling. “Oh! Yes, they’re on the other side of the cavern, disguised as broken worker units. I don’t think they’re powered up though.”

“Go,” you say, nodding to her. “Go and do what you need to do to keep them from activating.”

“What? No, I can’t leave you alone here, you’re really hurt.”

“So are you,” you say and she cringes before shuddering, her façade at hiding her old wounds failing for a moment. You chuckle and then wheeze, standing up before the titanic battle. “If we fall here, at least we’ll have done what we set out to do. Without those constructs, they’ll be set behind severely. Ophelia, this is what you came here for, right?”

She hesitates before slowly hanging her head. “Damn you Tobias Shady. Damn you for always keeping me away. But damn you more for being right.”

You grip her arm and she nods her head before standing up and running as best she can past the battle of strength near you and the battle of wills in the center of the room. You watch the latter contest again for a brief moment as you get your wits about you and see that very little has changed. They still stare at each other, but Xanthia’s face has taken on a look of annoyance, as if she’s getting tired of whatever mind game Fiora is playing.

A sharp cracking sound turns your attention back to the battle before you as Chalan staggers backward, her neck twisted at an unnatural angle. Ginelle flies forward and throws out a rain of terrible blows upon the chest of the monstrosity, which throws up clouds of blood and plant matter, flesh and sap. Eventually she roars in triumph and kicks Chalan backward. The plant hulk hits the ground with a thud, fresh wounds oozing, though they’re already starting to close.

Before you can shout a word of encouragement, Ginelle leaps into the air and lands on Chalan’s chest, tearing great furrows with her claws, not giving the thing a chance to fully heal. For all her power though, Ginelle is lost to the world, and you notice only too late the changes happening to the rest of Chalan.

“GINELLE!” you shout, making to run toward her, but staggering as you feel a sharp pain in your chest. You can only watch in horror as a spike of plant matter rises from behind Chalan, a tail of sorts that impales Ginelle through the shoulder.

The Badger doesn’t seem to notice for a moment, continuing her assault until the tail picks her up and throws her to the ground, keeping her in place long enough for the other plants to hold her down. Chalan, whose face is now utterly gone, all traces of humanity replaced by her grotesque transformation, opens a maw of gaping plant-life as she attempts to devour Ginelle.

An ear-splitting crack echoes through the room and a gout of flame bursts out from Chalan, causing the beast to scream and hurl Ginelle aside like a rag doll before turning to the source of her pain, shouting in defiance. Her cries are met only with a veritable barrage of flaming magic bolts that tear apart her body and light the whole thing on fire.

She roars in panic and rage, trying to put the fires out, but is failing. You look over to where the shots came from to see Clint, rifle in hand as the flame imbued barrel steams and the mana capacitor goes dim. The man, his hat fallen off his head, slumps down, rifle clattering unceremoniously to the wooden boards. He points to the beast, apparently in too much in pain to say anything, and you snap your eyes back to Chalan.

Even though she was clawed apart, even though she was just shot, even though she’s on fire, she still stands there, healing faster than she can be burned. Though there is nothing human left in that visage, you find yourself looking into something seething with anger and rage that is entirely lucid. She staggers toward you, flower on her chest gaping wide.

How… how does one kill such a thing? Not even the Monsters the Grand Wizard fought were this impossible to kill. Not even Jakovitch was so impervious, and yet here you see a creature of plants, shambling toward you with the only goal to end your miserable existence. Gods, the only way to kill her would be to have something so powerful destroy her utterly in one blast.

Wait… one blast?

You hurriedly dig into your rucksack and pull out something you took from Ophelia’s luggage. In your hand is the magitek bomb you had stowed in there earlier, somehow not detonated, despite how beaten up you are. While you’ve been saving it for a last-ditch effort, to take out both yourself and Fiora if all else failed, you didn’t anticipate this situation with Chalan, or Xanthia. You look to the mind-locked Fiora and consider tossing it at her, but when you see Saya’s face… no, you can’t do it even if the world is going to come to an end, which it very well might.

Gritting your teeth, you prime the bomb, the device glowing a faint blue as it pulses to life. Thirty seconds. That should be plenty.

You stand up on wobbly legs and grip the device as Chalan stumbles toward you, chest gaping. Closing your eyes, say a little prayer to… well, anyone who will listen, and then charge forward. It hurts abominably and you find you can’t breathe, but it’s all you can do. The pain starts to get to your head and your vision begins to cloud around the edges. That’s fine though, you’re only focused on one spot anyway.

Chalan roars as you close in and the gaping hole in her chest widens further than before. With all the strength you have in you, you toss the bomb at her and leap to the side, crumpling in a heap. You turn about slowly, pain numbing your actions, and view what you’ve done.

The monstrosity stands past you, her path unaltered from before. With slowly fading vision, you see Chalan make an unsightly burping noise before she expands outward, and then an explosion of blue light and sound hits you as everything goes to black.

 

Chapter 104

“Tobias… wake up, quickly.”

You blink your eyes slowly awake and then instantly regret it, cringing in horrible pain. Gods it hurts so badly, you feel like crying. Actually, you do cry a little as you open your eyes again to see a softly glowing form before you.

“A-Abigail?” you whisper.

Abigail, as tall you, resplendent hair trailing behind her, smiles wanly. “Yes, it is me.”

“You… the battle?”

“You were only out for a few moments. Long enough for Jackor’s power to flow into me, though the battle is not over.” Her hands, gentle and warm, sit you up, and you cough some more, feeling woozy as you survey the mental battle.

Xanthia takes a knee, her eye twitching as she begins panting. Fiora stands even closer than before, her hair whipping about in agitation. She… she’s winning. In the contest of insanity, Fiora is winning. A chill runs through you at the thought. If she beats Xanthia, then both she AND Saya are gone.

“I have to help Xanthia…” you say, struggling to get up, but you find Abigail holding you in place, shaking her head.

“No, you’re far too hurt. You’ll only kill yourself.”

“She’s going to kill Saya!” you croak, tears still streaming from your eyes. “We… we have to help her.”

“I…” Abigail says, seeming hesitant. “I can but…”

“But what?” you say, feeling too tired to be dismayed.

“If I grant you the last boons, I’ll have fully taken on this power. I’ll be a Titania.”

You go silent and clench your jaw, looking out to the battle where Xanthia begins to shudder, her form looking less solid. Closing your eyes, you wish you could berate Abigail, and force her hand, but you cannot. It is not your place for such things.

“It is your choice, I know,” you say quietly in her arms. “If you wish to leave, return to your normal life, I wouldn’t blame you. You never wanted this and I never wished for your life to be so torn apart by Jackor. You are a victim in this.

“But you have a choice to make, Abigail. You can do what’s best for you or help save this Kingdom. No, not even that, you can help save a friend, even if you two didn’t see eye to eye. I ask of you as meek and humble as I can: Please, lend me your strength.”

You feel something lightly fall on your cheek and you look up to see Abigail crying, her beautiful face marred by tears. She shudders once, brilliant wings shaking as she says, “Damn you Tobias, damn you to the Hells for making me have to choose.”

Closing your eyes, you nod your head. “I see. It’s been a pleasure know-” You’re cut off as she presses her lips to yours with a force borne of passion.

Intense warmth flows through your body as she holds you in her arms, kissing you almost violently. Though you feel you should have some difficulty breathing because of this, everything feels light and airy and the familiar sensation of power flows into you.

Abigail pulls back and opens her eyes before rubbing at them, drying away tears. She begins to glow a little more distinctly and nods her head at you. “I’m going to get you for this, you hear?”

“I thought Titanias were supposed to be nice,” you chuckle, pulling yourself up slowly, your pain dimming.

“Bastard,” she mutters before smirking. “Now then, use that power and let’s save Saya. Can’t make a child cry, right?”

You think of Akela, hopefully hiding with Ophelia right now, and nod your head. You close your eyes as your new powers flow into you, feeling for what Jackor has seen fit to give you.

>You gain <Peace of Death>
>Taken from Nerg and tempered by Filios, pain and death are less important than before.
>Your <Battle Focus> is improved markedly, certain Illusions have less effect on you, and you may tone out most pains.

>You gain <Starlight Wisdom>
>The full domain of Hevensferth is open to you. In the light you can perceive more than you could with simple eyes. Wisdom is yours, if you but walk in the light.
>So long as there is light, your perception is increased. You notice things you can’t normally, and this may be applied to illusions as well.

You open your eyes as a strange calm comes over you. The pains of your injuries begin to seem less important and you no longer fear for much of anything anymore. All you notice is the enemy before you and, with a clarity of thought, you home in on Fiora, taking a step slowly toward her.

“Tobias?” Abigail says, hovering beside you. “What do you plan to do?”

“Defeat Fiora, of course,” you say plainly before looking at her with a cool expression. “What abilities do you possess now?”

“I can command Fairies, have dominion over certain plants and lesser Plant Monsters, who are willing to listen anyway, and a few, more esoteric abilities.”

“Can you summon Fairies here?”

She thinks for a moment before nodding. “Some, yes.”

“Do it.”

She closes her eyes and then shivers, beginning to pulse light, like a sort of beacon. “It is done.”

“Alright,” you say, striding up to about five yards from Fiora and throwing a rock at her. A tentacle immediately catches it and the Mindflayer turns about, rage on her face. Xanthia slips to the ground, melting slightly as she seems utterly stunned.

“How,” Fiora says, not even as a question. She looks about the cavern and then snarls, “How are you still alive?”

“Luck? Skill? Tricks?” you say, shrugging. “It doesn’t matter, does it?”

“No,” she spits. “Since you’re going to die right here.” She doesn’t move, but you can feel a sudden pain bursting from inside your chest as your wounds become too difficult to bear.

Or they would, if you paid them any mind. Like water flowing off an Otter Girl’s back, the pain slides off and you walk forward, face determined. Fiora’s eyes go wide and she says, “How is that possible? You are not so skilled an Illusionist! You should be dead, or insane! I don’t understand, not even the horror from the damn void is strong enough to resist me, but you! You just keep coming again and again!” Her voice trembles, ever so slightly.

“How?”

You blink a few times before shrugging, speaking as if it were obvious. “See, I’ve come to learn something about you Fiora. You were good as a student, the best. I’ll admit you’re better at illusion work than I am.” Your expression becomes stern then as you add, “But you forget that being skilled is not all an Illusionist must be. You ignore the very nature of our power and our being, the thing that resides at our cores.”

Tapping your chest, you say, “You forget that we are tricksters and, Fiora, I tricked a fucking God. What have you done?”

She stares at you in open confusion and shock. You turn your head slowly to Abigail and ask, “Are they here yet?”

“Yes,” Abigail says, flying up into the air. “They sure are.”

“What-” Fiora begins before a cloud of small, loud, glowing Fairies burst in from a side tunnel and flitter about her. The Mindflayer shouts with rage as the Fairies tear at her face, her hair, clothes, everything. Her tentacle hair flies about wildly, catching various Fairies here and there, but with Abigail flying above, her pure light shining down upon them, they fight in a frenzy until Fiora shouts with force enough to throw them all backward in dazed confusion.

You know it’s an illusion and thus merely point at her. Abigail raises her hands, light charging about her, and in a splendor of color, blasts Fiora with a rainbow of energy. The Mindflayer cries out, but does not stagger backward and instead shields herself with her hair and resists until the power is spent.

When she opens her eyes and pulls away the tentacles, she starts to find you before her, hands open. She stares at you in confusion, looking for any sign of a weapon, but you merely shake your head. Blinking at you, she asks, dumfounded,

“Are you an idiot?”

“Yes. But you’re dead.”

You thrust a hand out and push her. She blinks in surprise as she falls backward, turning to look at what is behind her. Her eyes go wide and her mouth opens, but she has no time to scream before she falls into the waiting arms of Xanthia.

Fiora holds out a hand toward you as Saya’s pitch black body, controlled by Xanthia, devours the Mindflayer whole, covering her mouth and dissolving her utterly. You see in her eyes one brief moment of clarity, of raw fear. There is another emotion there as well, one hiding behind it all as the last of her is swallowed whole:

Regret.

In barely any time at all, Fiora is gone, devoured by the Eldritch creature masquerading around as your girlfriend. The cavern goes quiet, only the sounds of flapping wings about you making any noise. You turn slowly to Xanthia to see her standing tall again, skin forming back into the color of Saya’s, and once more before you stands your girlfriend with those unnatural eyes and that disturbing smile.

“Thank you,” the Shoggoth says, bowing. “I am unused to such things, and thus she was able to harm me. I feared I would be banished if it kept up.”

You blink at her a few times, feeling the <Battle Focus> continue within you. You aren’t done yet, are you? This battle isn’t over at all. In a slow, steady voice you ask, “Please leave Saya’s body.”

Xanthia merely smiles as she shakes her head slowly. “I think not, Tobias. You have helped me out greatly, but though I have a form in this plane, I require a body to move anywhere far from the summoning circle.” She gives you a rueful smile. “I do care deeply for Saya, but she was closest at hand, and we merge so well. Our years together and our body compositions work in such a magnificent way that we may become one person.”

She chuckles in that all too familiar voice of Saya’s. “You know, I see why Saya likes you so much. I wonder, now that my power is not in check, perhaps I should partake of this ritual my former Master was so fond of. I have never had this ‘sex.’” Her clothes melt from her, showing Saya’s naked, human form. She holds out her arms and says,

“Come, Tobias.”

You don’t flinch, but merely scowl. With your new insight and <Serene Wisdom> you can detect the imperfections in her actions. Though she and Saya are merged together, though she wears the body well, the way she walks, the way she talks, they are not Saya at all. And yet the traces of your love are still there, though hidden under the greater presence of Xanthia. You had no antipathy for the creature before, in fact you even had respect, yet now all you feel is disgust.

“No,” you say, shaking your head. “You will release her.”

She sighs. “Tobias, if you are so obstinate, I will be forced to kill you, and we would both hate that.”

“Then take me instead. Use me as your body and let her go.”

Xanthia pauses, taking the suggestion into consideration. Abigail flutters next to you as her Fairies hover nearby, a cloud of shining lights. “Tobias, what are you doing? You cannot seriously believe this will solve anything. Let me fight her, I believe I can drive her back to whence she came with this new power of mine-” She stops as you shake your head.

“Do you remember what I told Fiora, before she died?” Abigail frowns and then nods her head. You feel in your pocket for a small, wooden object and gently hold it in the palm of your hand. “I will need your help though.”

Abigail looks at you before gritting her teeth. Without a word, however, she nods her head, turning back to Xanthia as the Shoggoth sighs in resignation. “A tempting offer, but I think not. I am more familiar with the female form as it is, and I have grown accustomed to Saya’s body.”

“A shame,” you say, shaking your head. “I was hoping we could come to a compromise, but you have to go back.”

She frowns in annoyance. “Go back? What do you mean?”

“I mean, you have to go back.” You pull forth from your pocket the small, wooden bear figurine and hold it up before her. Xanthia looks at it in confusion, but Abigail gasps, seeming to understand what it is instinctively. You never figured it out until just recently with your new insight ability, but Gods damn, what a piece of shit.

“Catch,” you say, throwing [Bearsy] to Xanthia. She catches it, not eating the little bear and instead staring at it in confusion before a loud voice echoes in everyone’s mind as the bear glows with intense power.

YOU HAVE TO GO BACK.

Xanthia shudders, her form rippling like water. She drops the little bear from her hands, and it thrums violently, calling out, BACK, BACK, YOU MUST GO BACK.

She puts a hand to her head as the ripples grow more and more pronounced, her body shaking and splitting into two. Two voices echo from the same mouth, “WHAT IS HAPPENING?!”

You look over to Abigail to see her Fairies circling her in a cloud as she floats above, eyes glowing bright white as she hums with power- Power channeled directly from Jackor into the tiny bear. Putting your hands in your pocket, you shout, “[Bearsy] was always a warning. To stay true to your roots and not lose sight of what is important. In essence, ‘You have to go back.'”

Sighing, ruefully, you look up at the ceiling. “I hate you Jackor, you piece of shit God. You were the bear this whole time, weren’t you?”

“NOOOOO!” Xanthia screams, now a completely separate entity from Saya. The two split apart and Saya lands in a black heap, still maintaining her human form somehow, though her skin is pitch black. Xanthia drops to her liquid knees and shudders, dripping onto the floor as she begins to melt. You kneel down before her and frown as she looks up into your eyes and whispers, “How?”

“You left her body of your own accord,” you say, shaking your head. “I didn’t do a Gods damned thing. You just thought I used some power of the Gods.” Her eyes go wide and you shrug,

“Oh, I did rub out the circle though.”

She snaps her attention back to the summoning circle, which had stayed free from disruption despite the calamitous battle, to see it broken by your foot. Her form begins to melt into nothingness and then, in a surprising turn of events, she smiles that horrible smile at you.

“Well played, young Illusionist. You do a service to your kind. Know that I did not mean you any ill will with what I did. Still, I am not sorry.” As she sinks down into the earth, her last words are, “I’ll see you in Sanctifrond.” And with that, she’s gone.

You hang your head before hurriedly going over to Saya and placing your hand upon her shoulder. Despite your God-given insight, you really should have thought this through, and you only realize your mistake just as you touch her- yet the pain doesn’t come. You blink in confusion and look down to see that your hand is fine, not melted in the slightest. With this realization, you shake Saya and she shudders, opening her dark eyes before turning to you.

“T-Tobias?” she says weakly, before shaking, her skin rippling back into that of a pale woman. She blinks a few times and then sits up with your help, allowing you to drag her into your arms.

“Saya, thank the Gods you’re safe.” You almost weep as you hold her. “I thought I lost you.”

“I… I didn’t… where did I?” She puts a hand to her head and says, “Where is Xanthia? What happened to the battle?”

“We won. Xanthia is banished from here and you’re fine.” You pull back and cock your head in surprise. “Though… how are you in this form without your skeleton?” Both of you look over to the pile of bones laying nearby, and she looks utterly amazed.

“I… I have no idea! This doesn’t seem physically possible, but I just seem to be able to… keep this form up. I have the knowledge in my head of how to do it, but I don’t know where I learned it from.”

Her eyes widen and she asks, “Gods, did Xanthia-” She cuts off and concentrates a moment before black furred, feline ears grow on her head. She wiggles them a few times before whistling. “Damn, mom is going to be happy about this.”

“MOOOOOOOOM! DAAAAAAAD!”

You both turn to see Akela run toward you, almost bowling the two of you over as she dives in for a hug. She hugs the Hells out of both of you, crying violently as she does so. “Don’t… don’t ever do something like that again! I thought I’d lost both of you!”

With the battle finished, you wheeze as your tolerance to pain fades. “Ack… Akela, ouch, ouch.” She doesn’t let up though, and you accept the pain, hugging both of them tightly as tears of joy spill from your eyes. Gods damnit, you did it and everyone is alive, everyone is…

“Oh fuck,” you say, sitting up with some difficulty. “Ginelle, Clint. We have to-”

“They’re fine, sort of,” Ophelia says from over where Ginelle is laying, a freshly applied bandage on her arm. She points to Clint to show the man sitting up, though he appears to be in extreme pain. Alice is still out cold, but she’s breathing from what you can see. That’s nice you suppose. “Ginelle will live, but Gods, she’s a mess. She needs to see a healer soon.”

“I think all of you do,” Abigail says, dismissing her fairies. “Come then, we should quit this place. Jackor’s duty is done, all that is left is the bargaining table.” She claps your shoulder, which hurts like the Hells, and smiles brightly, “You did it Tobias. You finished this fight.”

Oh, I wouldn’t be so certain of that.

You hear the voice faintly and you frown, looking for the source. It takes you a moment to realize what it is, and you look down to see [Bearsy], carved eyes staring right into your soul. You gently pick the little wooden figure up and look him over before saying,

“We had a deal Jackor. She’s dead, crisis averted.”

Yes, and I will hold up my end of the bargain. But there is more to this than merely what you did today. An accomplishment, to be sure, but not the root cause.

“The fuck does that mean, Jackor?” you say, shaking the bear. “Live up to your end of the bargain!”

I will, when you return to Loveura. When you go back, you will be rewarded…

“Piece of shit…” you say, growling. “What the fuck do you mean this isn’t over?” You shake your head angrily and look to the others. “We need to get everyone back to town and talk with Anderson, I don’t like what he’s saying.”

“Who?” Saya asks, cocking her head.

You point to [Bearsy]. “My asshole God who inhabits the tiny bear statue and speaks with me in cryptic phrases.” Pausing, you think this over for a few moments and then remember what had just happened last time Jackor spoke with you in frank terms.

Ah Hells.

 

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2 thoughts on “Illusionistquest Chapter 19: Mental Breakdown

  1. Plot convolutions, I half expected Xanthia to take over Tobias instead. That way Saya and Tobias could’ve started a new generation of,…whatever Saya is and Tobias/Shoggoth.

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