A perfect darkness engulfed Sabaia’s arena. Striding through the stairwell door, Luisa saw nothing but pitch blackness, heard nothing but total silence, sensed nothing but complete emptiness.
Her mental map spanned the entirety of the circular hall. The walls were smooth, the floor level, all traces of the previous battle completely erased. The fissures blown into the ground had been sealed and smoothened. There were no bodies, no blood, not even a lingering scent of war.
How much time had passed since her fall? She didn’t know. She had lost all track of time by the shores of the scarlet sea. She had marked the passage of hours only by her breathing, her heartbeat, and the never-ending cycles of burning and Leveling. Surely it couldn’t have been more than a day.
Sabaia or its minions must have repaired the damage. Red Dust was the obvious material for the task. It could fill in a gap completely, then by the ancient sorceries of the Ancients, it could transform into a substance similar to, if not the same as, any other element in existence—and many more that did not exist in nature.
As for the dead…
There had to be dead. Luisa had seen men fall, heard them die. She hoped the survivors of the expedition had evacuated their casualties. She suspected that there had been no survivors. It wasn’t the first time a party had been completely wiped out in the wastes, and it wouldn’t be the last. Even Ascendants from the House of Amber were not immune to such a fate.
However many had died, she would avenge them.
Navigating solely by her enhanced awareness, she strode to the center of the circle. Though she could not see past the tip of her nose, she trusted completely in the gifts of the Goddess. Nonetheless, though her mental map revealed nothing, she felt the weight of an impossibly heavy gaze, high above her head, just beyond the reach of her perception.
The Aberration must be using a Power of its own. It must be how it had hidden from the veterans during the first run. But Luisa had another Power of her own.
Divine Scan, she willed.
Questing her mind along the roof of the Well, she felt a sudden sense of wrongness. A thing that should not be there.
On the ceiling, smooth, slick coils looped round and round like a coil of rope, as thick as three men standing abreast, the valleys and ridges between them a sudden departure from the unnatural smoothness of the walls and floor. Along the edges of the walls, soft flesh flattened itself, molding to the curvature of the Well, completely filling all space. One end drooped down directly above the stairwell Luisa had just left. The other dangled from the origin of the living loop, flattening into an elongated skull.
It tried to conceal its presence, but Divine Scan revealed the truth of the world. Its body heat was a fraction above the background temperature, enough to give it away. Its mottled texture contrasted starkly against the smooth walls.
And there were the eyes.
Red as rubies, each as large as a man’s fists put together, they glared unblinkingly at Luisa, burning with infinite hate and boundless hunger. She could not see them with her mortal eyes, but nothing could hide from the eyes of the Goddess—and through the Link, She freely shared Her perception with Luisa.
Once again, here was Aberrant Sabaia, the Anguilline Wyrm.
Luisa drew her sword and aimed it at Sabaia’s head.
“Aberrant! I am here! Show yourself!”
The deafening cry reverberated in the arena, reflecting and amplifying countless times in the enclosed space, assaulting Luisa from every direction. Pain lanced through her ears. Her bowels trembled. Nausea crept up her throat. Though she winced, she held her sword high and true, refusing to show weakness.
Launching from the ceiling, it propelled itself towards her, jaws opening wide to reveal rows of saber-like fangs. As its body unwound, massive paws unfolded from its sides and extended claws as long as glaives. What little sound Sabaia made had been masked by its war cry. It swooped down on her, falling with the force of a thunderbolt.
Red Dust concentrated in the musculature of her broad back. Fine structures extruded from her skin and seeped through the thin fabric of her shirt, forming a curved plate that followed the contours of her spine. From that foundation, more Dust hurriedly assembled into complex constructs, obeying of the Goddess and Her Ascendant. A pair of long struts swept outward, extending past her arms, then grew joints and tendons, and finally bent into bones. Fine remiges extruded along the lower edges of the new-grown bones, blunt teardrops narrowing to sharpened edges.
Her proprioception expanded, encompassing her newborn wings. Principles flooded her mind, unarticulated and instinctive, a complete manual of flight operations. The wings did not catch air, instead emitting telekinetic force, shaping the vectors to create thrust.
She had tested her wings in the stairwell, under the principle that learning to fly in a cramped space would be much harder than flying in the open, and you always wanted training to be harder than the real world. There she learned that she didn’t even need to spread her wings to fly; so long as she had them, even folded behind her back, she could fly. Then she returned to the floor below and tested her wings again, this time unfurling them to their full extent.
Through the tests, the Goddess had guided her, showing her how to maintain balance, how to speed up and slow down, how to avoid obstacles, how to dive, how to ascend. Mara spoke not in words, instead downloading an entire library into her brain, then allowed Luisa to learn how to use that newfound information. And now, it was time to put everything she had learned to the test.
Rocketing off the ground, Luisa streaked for the Aberrant’s gaping maw, her sword aimed at its soft insides. She activated Divine Stealth, and her store of Red Dust billowed from her skin to engulf her completely. From the tip of her sword to the soles of her boots, she turned the shade of blood—then became like soft, transparent glass. Pivoting clockwise, she introduced a spiral into her ascent, then ejected a quartet of Flares, one after another.
In the searing red light, she beheld Sabaia’s form. The skin of the titanic eel shifted color, taking on the exact hue of the Flares. Yet shadows and movement betrayed it, revealing its silhouette to Luisa’s augmented eyes. Saliva gushed greedily from its oral jaw. Its pharyngeal jaw shot forward, ready to seize her and drag her into its gullet.
Extending her left hand, Luisa constructed four Blood Blades and hurled them towards Sabaia’s open jaw. With a quickness that belied its mass, the creature swiftly dodged, looping around to strike at her from another angle.
Behind the blinding light of a flare, Luisa built a Razor Mine and tossed it at Sabaia.
Swiftly she reoriented her wings, and dashed to the side. An instant later, the Aberrant hurtled past and slammed its jaws shut. The wind of its passage buffeted Luisa.
And the mine detonated.
The blast sprung the monster’s jaws open. Blood and broken teeth sprayed in every direction. Sabaia let forth a howl of pure torment, now stunned into stillness. Raising her sword, Luisa dashed for its humongous neck and cut.
Thick scales turned her heavy blade.
Pushing off, she regained control of her Blood Blades, then stabbed them into the monster’s sides with all her telekinetic strength.
They shattered into dust.
And a heavy paw swung towards her.
Dipping low, she pivoted towards the new threat, punching out her sword. It was fast, too fast to evade, and all she could do was catch it on her edge. She tucked her chin, reinforced her grip with her left hand, kept her body behind her weapon, and braced for impact.
Sharp steel met soft flesh.
The steel broke.
The broken blade whispered past her face. The transferred force sent her spinning backwards and to her right. She accelerated her descent, barely dodging a quartet of humongous claws, then flipped around upright and slowed to a halt.
And her boots found the floor.
That was close!
“You came back,” Sabaia growled from high above, its voice filling the arena.
“You should have killed me when you had the chance,” Luisa replied.
Sabaia chuckled. “The higher the Level, the tastier the prey.”
“I am not prey. I am an Angel of the Goddess!”
“I broke your blade. Then I will break your wings. And finally, I will break you!”
Jaws wide open, it fell upon her from above. In her mental map, its enormous mass grew heavier, faster, an unstoppable force of nature.
Hot, thick liquid dripped on her face. Blood or saliva, she could not tell.
Foetid breath wafted over her, carrying a noisome odor of fresh blood and rotting meat.
Luisa blasted off to her left, her boots barely an inch off the ground. Sabaia swerved to pursue her. Its enormous body slammed against the floor, spreading the impact across its paws and underside, preserving its vulnerable head. Luisa took off again, now shooting towards the ceiling.
A scarlet beam blasted from Sabaia’s mouth.
Luisa jinked to the side. The beam tracked her, forcing her out into the open.
Then an enormous mass swung towards her.
She jinked to the left.
Sabaia’s tail whooshed past. The thunder of its passage blew Luisa towards the wall—towards the lower third of its body. Luisa braked hard, fighting against her own inertia.
Then a paw slashed down at her.
She blended with the energy of her movement, no longer resisting it, just redirecting it. She fell through a parabolic arc, just ahead of the arc of the claws, and dropped to ground level.
Sabaia can track me! Luisa realized.
The Aberrant sinuously wound across the floor, claws clacking, torso wriggling. Everywhere its underbelly touched, it left behind a layer of slime. Perhaps it was how it managed to adhere to the smooth walls without falling off.
“Stealth is useless against me,” it growled. “Stay still, and I offer a quick and painless death. Struggle, and you will merely die tired.”
Its massive head slunk into view. Teeth bared, its tongue flicked out into the air. The insides of its mouth had been healed completely.
It could smell her. Taste her. Hear her. Stealth could not hide Luisa from the Aberrant’s other senses. It merely made her more difficult to target.
Its armor was impenetrable. Even the soft underside could resist a sword cut. A single blow from its paws could kill her. Its teeth could shatter armor, never mind flesh and bone. Its mouth beam would obliterate her in an instant. Its weight was a weapon, and if she got careless, its tail could swat her from the air, or it could wrap its body around her and crush her like a python. And, of course, it had a vast store of Red Dust to draw on.
She had only a broken sword, and was down to less than one-third of her depleted RD and EP bars.
“I destroyed your party. Crunched their bones between my teeth. Swallowed what remained of them whole. Every one of them. You will join them.”
Rage boiled in the depths of her heart. Rage, and sorrow, and fear. Everyone was dead. How could she fight Sabaia? She had made a terrible mistake coming here. She should have fled. And maybe she could still…
Sabaia is goading you into making a mistake.
The voice of the Goddess resonated in Luisa’s skull. Mara was right, of course. If Sabaia knew exactly where Luisa was, it wouldn’t have bothered with banter. It would have lunged for the kill.
She still had a chance.
A faint one, but a chance. With so little energy and Red Dust left, she would have to finish the beast in the next exchange.
An idea bloomed in her mind. A crazy idea. But better than nothing.
Gratitude washed over Luisa. She directed it all to Mara.
Then she loudly sucked in a breath through her mouth.
Sabaia’s head twitched, turning to face her.
She tossed her broken sword to the right.
As the hilt clanged against the ground, Sabaia turned to track the noise.
Soaring towards Sabaia’s tail, she released a burst of Red Dust, manifesting it as a Force Field. More than just a screen, it was a formless mass of Red Dust, engulfing her in a crimson cloud.
And in her hands, she manifested a Razor Mine.
Sabaia roared. Its tail twisted around and coiled up like a whip, aiming at the Force Field. Its head twisted around, jaws wide open to swallow her whole.
Luisa opened a hole in the Force Field and zipped to the side.
And left the Razor Mine behind.
Its humongous tail smashed into the Force Field. The cloud of dust burst into a fine gray spray, obscuring everything within it. Sabaia’s head lurched up, gulping down everything in the cloud.
Including the mine.
The mine detonated. Once again, Sabaia’s jaws blasted wide open, fractured and deformed. Broken teeth flew off in every direction. A gurgling cry tore loose from a wounded throat.
And Luisa swooped down.
A forest of Blood Blades manifested before her. Accelerating through her dive, the wind howled past her ears, her heart pounded in her chest. Rage, red and raw, gathered in her belly. She opened her mouth, gave voice to her fury and her sorrow, and hurled her blades.
A dozen skewered Sabaia’s left eye. A dozen more pierced its other eye. The blades sank deep, clean through the soft matter of the eyeball to quest for openings at the other end of the socket.
Sabaia howled, blood gushing from its massive wounds. Rearing up, it readied for a last-ditch lunge at Luisa.
Luisa’s boots slammed into the back of its skull.
Raw kinetic energy pulsed through the creature’s head. Bone cracked under the ferocious blow. An equal and opposite force blew through Luisa, sending shockwaves through her. A normal woman might have injured herself, but she was an Ascendant, an Angel. Her flesh was silk and her bones were living steel. She barely noticed the shock wave passing through her, focused solely on driving the beast down.
Sabaia’s head slammed into the floor. Blood and shattered fangs erupted in every direction. Lowering to all fours, she picked her way across the slippery scales covering its neck, going for its crown.
“You… How?” Sabaia rumbled.
“The Goddess smiled upon me,” Luisa said.
A strange sound emanated from its chest. There was pain, and much of it, sending blood shooting forth from its wounds. But more than pain, it was laughing.
“The Goddess! Hah! The Goddess made me into this form!”
Luisa froze. “What?”
“She sent me… a vision of this Well. Showed me… where to find it. So I gathered my party… Came here.”
I warned Sabaia not to drown herself in Red Dust. She refused.
“You burned yourself up. Leveled beyond your limits. It turned you into an Aberration!” Luisa said.
Sabaia laughed again. “Is that what She told you?”
“What do you mean?”
“Power. It is the way of the world. Without power, you are meat. We came here… looking for power. For Red Dust. She urged us to partake in it. To become… more than we were. To become her Avatars.”
I do not drive my children into madness. They chose this path for themselves. They paid the price.
“Then all of you became Aberrants, and destroyed each other.”
“Two tigers cannot share the same forest. Four Avatars cannot share the same Well. Thus, Mara pitted us against each other… Promised to grant Her favor… to the victor. When I won… She… abandoned… me.”
The word thundered in Luisa’s mind, drowning out all thought.
“Why?” Luisa whispered. “It makes no sense!”
“I pondered this question… for years. Decades. At last… I found the answer.”
IT IS BUYING TIME TO KILL YOU.
Pain racked Luisa’s head. But she had to know.
“What is it?” she asked.
“When Man is busy fighting monsters and leveling up… Man cannot turn against Mara.”
“No. Mara is—”
IT IS HEALING. KILL IT BEFORE IT KILLS YOU.
Cold realization filled her heart.
Mara was right. Mara was always right. It had stopped bleeding. Its sentences were getting longer and more coherent. Its breath was less labored. As they spoke, it had been tapping into its store of Red Dust, healing its internal injuries.
This ends now.
She detonated the Blood Blades.
Focused cones of fragmentation ripped through the inside of its eye sockets, passed through its optic canal, and penetrated the brain.
Sabaia roared. Its body threshed uncontrollably, whipping one way, then the other. Its tail lashed back and forth. Its paws slashed at the air. The violent bucking threw Luisa off the Aberration’s back. With a burst of focused intent, Luisa took off, heading for empty space.
Caught in its death throes, Sabaia lashed out at everything around it. Every impact against the walls and floor sent heavy booms echoing through the space. Blood gushed out from its humongous wounds, flushing out spongy masses of Dust, and this time the bleeding did not stop.
It twitched one last time, and went still.
It was over. The dead had been avenged. The Well had been reclaimed for humanity.
And she had become an Angel.
She returned to the fallen monster’s head. Bathed in blood and red light, she could scarcely tell what was blood and what was only its skin. Extending her hands, she touched her mind to the Red Dust in its body, and beckoned it to her.
Dense streams of Red Dust poured out the wounds, forming a sphere. It grew larger and larger, rapidly gaining mass. It reached the height of her ankles, her calves, then her knees, and still it continued to grow.
How much Red Dust had it absorbed? Luisa thought again of the almost-drained Well, and gulped. Even if the four members in her party had split twenty stories’ worth of Red Dust amongst themselves, it was still a mind-bogglingly huge amount. Enough to raise an army of Ascendants.
Or turn an Angel into an Avatar.
The last of the Red Dust spilled out. The sphere had reached mid-thigh. While much smaller than she’d expected, it was still, by human terms, an incomprehensible amount of Red Dust. Other than the sea of dust, she hadn’t seen so much Red Dust concentrated in one place before.
She returned to the stairwell. She had dumped her backpack on the other side of the door. She hadn’t wanted it interfering with the fight. All the Angels she knew never wore packs—or, indeed, armor that covered their backs. It would prevent the wings from forming, and for an Angel, mobility was life.
She retrieved her pack and returned to the mound of Red Dust. She absorbed a helping of Red Dust, enough to top off her RD pool, then divided the remainder into a dozen smaller balls and converted them all into phylacteries. The combined mass barely fit into her backpack—and that was after packing everything in tight, stuffing the side pockets, and strapping the extra phylacteries to the top of her pack.
Now there was one last question: how did she get out of here?
As she framed the thought, the door slid open.
Sunlight streamed into the Well. Her eyes stung. She’d been so used to low light and red light, color vision had become a foreign country. Caught in a rectangle of light, she squinted her eyes and held out a hand to block out the light.
“Who’s there?” a man boomed.
“Luisa,” she replied. “Luisa of the House of Amber!”
“Thank the Goddess!”
In the gaps between her fingers, she saw a tall, dark figure, silhouetted against the sunlight. She fed a trickle of Red Dust to her eyes, accelerating her adaptation.
“Who is it?” Luisa asked.
“Avatar Reginald, of the House of Amber.”
An Avatar! The next step above an Angel, an Avatar had attached a Level far beyond most Ascendants. Reginald was the strongest Avatar of the House of Amber, a god amongst men, second only to the Goddess Herself.
Avatars were the right hand of the Goddess. It was said that She spoke directly into their minds, issuing them their orders, showing them where they had to go. Everywhere they went, they carried out Her will, bringing light to the burned world. When an Aberrant threatened the world, there an Avatar went to lay it low.
But she had slain the Aberrant.
Was she equal to an Avatar?
Squeezing her eyes shut, Luisa brought her right fist to her heart, then shot her arm outwards and upwards in salute.
Reginald snapped out a crisp salute in return.
Dark figures flowed around him, rushing into the arena. Voices murmured in awe and fright. Someone shouted in alarm.
“How did you get here?” Luisa asked.
“The Goddess came to me. She advised that a party from the House was in danger. I assembled an expedition and came here.”
“When was this?”
“Twenty-four hours ago.”
A day. She had been trapped in the Well for a full day. During that day, she had become…
“You slew the Avatar?” Reginald asked.
Luisa opened her eyes a crack. Color invaded her sight. Now she saw a chiseled Knight, clad in pseudo-chitin, left hand resting on the hilt of his sword, right hand pointed behind her.
“All by yourself?”
“Yes. I’m the only one left.”
A subtle pressure passed over her skin. Reginald was Scanning her.
“You’re an Angel?” Reginald asked in disbelief.
“No Angels were sent here.”
“I became one.”
In terse sentences, she recounted the events that had brought her to this point. As she spoke, her eyes slowly took in more daylight. At the end of the report, her eyes had completely adapted.
“Well done,” Reginald said, nodding in approval. “You have slain an Aberrant, avenged the fallen, and secured the Well for humanity. In the history of our House, no one has accomplished a greater feat than this. When we return, I shall put in a good word for you with the Council.”
Reginald laughed. “You’ve done the impossible. It’s the least I could do.” Then his voice grew serious. “You jumped over eighty Levels in one day. Are you alright?”
“I’m fine. I kept myself from burning out.”
“Good. And I see you’re loaded up with phylacteries too. If you choose to burn it all… you could break into the triple digits. You could become an overnight Avatar.”
Luisa blinked. Blinked again.
“Don’t push yourself. You know what happens to an Ascendant who burns out,” Reginald said.
She nodded. “Yes. The Goddess Herself told me.”
Reginald raised an eyebrow. “She did, didn’t She? Now that’s interesting.”
He shook his head. “Nothing.”
She sensed an ocean of meaning in that one word. It most definitely wasn’t ‘nothing’. But fatigue had crept up on her. Her limbs felt like rubber, her brain like molten lead. There was something here, something she had to learn… but she couldn’t think of the right question to ask.
“We’ll take care of the rest from here,” he said. “Go outside and rest. The support team will take care of you.”
Reginald stood in the doorway, watching her with unblinking eyes, until she squeezed past him and stepped out into the light.
The pungent air of the swamp filled her lungs, pregnant with life and decay. A gentle wind caressed her skin, wonderfully refreshing after such a long time in the Well. The rays of the sun bathed her, scouring the darkness from her being.
All around her, the support team was hard at work. They pitched tents, organized supplies, prepared casualty evacuation points, guarded the camp. They were backliners, but their work was just as important for the success of a major operation like this. None of them noticed her.
She slumped against a tree, lowering herself to the moist earth. She grabbed a canteen and sipped more blood. It was still warm, though even more clotted than before. The backliners would surely have brought water and rations, but now… now she was in the mood for blood.
Aberrations. Angels. Avatars. In the space of twenty-four hours, she had gone from a nigh-useless rookie to a battle-hardened veteran with stupendous Powers at her command. It felt… unreal, somehow, as though the events in the Well had been but a dream.
But it also felt… right. Like this was what she was meant to be.
She thought again of the battle with Sabaia. No one had taught her how to fight like an Angel. No one in the House had shown her the strategies and techniques of their warrior Angels. She had to put together a plan on the fly. And she had triumphed.
She, a mere human, couldn’t possibly have done this alone. She felt the guiding hand of the Goddess, showing her what she had to do, helping her to carry out Her will. Mara was always with her, and now, with the upgraded Link, they were even closer.
Angel she might be, but she had only been one for a day. Less, actually. There were so many more Angels out there, with much more experience than her, even more powerful and capable than she’d dared to dream. Once again, she was at the bottom of the hierarchy. She was right back where she’d started, only this time at a higher level of existence.
Beyond the Angels stood the Avatars. They were as out of reach to an Angel as an Angel was to her when she’d been a mere Level 8 Scout. Yet with the Red Dust she had harvested from the Anguillines and the Aberrant… after what Reginald had told her… that elevated position didn’t seem so out of reach any more.
There were still so many nodes left in her Skill Web, so much Red Dust in her phylacteries, so much more waiting for her. Her future was as boundless as the heavens. A future in the service of the Goddess.
Are you ready to Ascend?
She had found her path. She knew where she had to go, what she had to do, and the way to get there. Already she was studying her Skill Web, plotting her next line of progression, finding the synergies that would take her to the next level of existence. To a higher level of Power. Her old life was over—and a new one was here.
Her thoughts drifted to Sabaia. Of what the Aberrant had told her, of what it had wanted to tell her. But those words suddenly felt hazy and far away, like fragments of a half-remembered dream. Whatever it was that Sabaia had wanted to tell her, it must have been lies, a ploy to trick her into lowering her guard, nothing more. Nothing good can come from listening to monsters.
Mara had guided her true during her ascent. Surely She would continue to do the same.
Filled with hope, anchored in faith, eyes turned to the heavens, Luisa spoke her answer.
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