“Lightning Blast!” Ezekiel yelled. A bolt of cobalt electricity forked out of his hand and smashed into the chest of a Bloodbeast Wolf that hopped out of the nearby treeline with gnashing jaws. It whined and stumbled to the side, giving Ezekiel the chance to follow up with a sharp cut with his ax, cutting the skull of the thing in half.
Fresh blood began to dribble out of the cleft in the beast’s flesh, which would eventually cause the Bloodbeast to shrink, but the real problem with these monsters was that they didn’t possess actual bodies. Ezekiel wasn’t sure how they were made, but the process certainly produced beings that were difficult to put down. If he could find the maker and Take those Skills…
Just as Ezekiel was raising his ask and working up his noise to strike again, the woman was next to him, making the sign of the cross and then pointing to the Bloodbeast. “Rest in Peace.”
The Bloodbeast hissed and thrashed, but the spot where the woman had pointed began to go black. Very quickly that black blood turned to ash and flaked away. Within a few seconds, the Bloodbeast had faded to nothing, joining the growing piles of ash that surrounded the two of them.
Ezekiel favored the woman with a sidelong glance. This woman is obviously important, but if I had these Skills it would make everything much easier…
The woman noticed Ezekiel’s glance and returned his gaze with obvious venom. Still, Ezekiel didn’t have any intention to make any move to kill the woman. With his Eyes of Avarice, an Ancient rated Skill, failing to read the woman, a lot of Ezekiel’s confidence drained out of him. Better to stick to Ace’s plan.
A gorilla Bloodbeast that was barreling toward the woman from the side was twisted sideways as she shifted smoothly to meet it. The woman rapidly destroyed its momentum and then she kicked the side of its knee so hard that the joint ruptured in a gush of liquid. The Bloodbeast collapsed and the woman stepped over the body to continue backing up the path to her cottage with Ezekiel.
That made Ezekiel speculate that there was a limit to the number of times she could use the Rest in Peace Skill. She certainly seemed pale and exhausted in a way that Ezekiel hadn’t noticed before.
Although it was destroyed in the short term, the joint was ultimately built with blood. It would quickly heal. The past ten minutes had been a harsh lesson in how powerful the man behind the murders was, and why he had been able to move through the new Zone with impunity. They likely would have been overrun if it wasn’t for the woman’s Skill and Ace’s nascent image absolutely overwhelming the Bloodbeasts.
“Is this really all you can manage?” Dauntless rumbled, disappointment clear in his voice. The black visor of the motorcycle helmet was a cruelly reflecting the struggling face of the Vulture Bloodbeast as Dauntless seized its wings and began to pull them apart from its torso. Compared to the intimidating wingspan of this Vulture, Dauntless was relatively small. He could only barely stretch his arms wide enough to grab both of the shoulder joints.
Yet Dauntless’ grip was heavy in a way that couldn’t just be explained physically; it was also energized by the power of images. That rumbling and sloshing picture hanging in the air above him made it so that even foes above Level 50 were nothing.
The Vulture screeched and thrashed as it tried to shake off Dauntless’ grip. But very swiftly those screeches devolved into whines as Dauntless physically tore off the wing with a wet thwak that sounded like someone pulling a boot out of deep mud. Hot blood sprayed out of the ripped limb, covering the surrounding area.
The Iguana Bloodbeast righted itself from the crushing elbow Dauntless had smashed it with a few seconds earlier and charged to save its companion from further agony. Dauntless simply glanced over his shoulder and brought his leg around in a vicious kick that smashed the Iguana’s face inward. Blood spurted out of the Bloodbeast’s skull and drenched Dauntless’s leg. Then the masked man calmly turned and faced the headless Grizzly Bear he had already decapitated as it staggered toward him.
“Weak,” Dauntless said simply, completely covered in blood and surrounded by the dying remnants of the lion’s share of the Bloodbeasts that had attacked them. “So terribly weak.”
Behind him, Ace’s image was slowly coming into focus. It came in fits and starts, but now that most of the Bloodbeasts had been dealt with, Ezekiel had time to set his feet and consider the shifting color in the air above the distinctive motorcycle helmet.
The image that flickered as Dauntless moved was a towering figure of iron-bound wood and brackish water. As he twisted and stomped down to smash the head of a lesser Bloodbeast that was creeping up behind him, Dauntless seemed to be a drowned ship in the sea at night. Waves of forced crashed everywhere around him. The world he inhabited was characterized by stormy chaos. And yet Dauntless was implacable, capricious, shifting, and dangerous. Everything that came his way was devoured by the infinite depths of the sea that surrounded, leaving him the only enduring entity.
Then there was a shift. The remaining half dozen or so Bloodbeast cried and began to limp back toward the creek. Ezekiel felt an ominous feeling as he looked down at the water of the creek and noticed that it had shifted to become completely black.
“Heh, about damn time,” Dauntless grinned.
Even as Dauntless stepped up to stand before the creek, Ezekiel was glancing sideways at the woman who was slowly backing away. “Stay. We cannot protect you if you leave our side. And I doubt that those monsters would have much hesitation to strike while you are alone.”
“Protect me? Is that why you attacked me earlier? To protect me?” The woman asked sarcastically. But at the very least, she did stop moving away. Reminding her of the threat was likely much more helpful to them now than trying to force her to stay with violence. Ezekiel held the woman’s gaze until she looked down at the ground with gritted teeth, allowing her hair to swing forward and block her face.
“Well yes. I never said we were gentle people.” Ezekiel turned around right in time to see a figure emerging from the water. To Ezekiel’s surprise, the man was extremely old. Although his slick-backed hair was still black his face was lined and wrinkled. His limbs were covered with liver-spots and frail-looking. Perhaps strangest of all, he was sitting in a wheelchair made entirely of bone, pushed out of the stream by a humanoid Bloodbeast that was such a dark red that it appeared almost black.
The man’s gaze was a pure, chilling blue. Hovering in the air behind the man, much more condensed than any Ezekiel had ever seen, was a vivid image of a wan looking man with a long black cloak riding a horse. As the man appeared, the rider seemed to shiver and then slowly look up toward the waiting trio.
“You are hunting for me.” Rather than annoyed, the man seemed genuinely curious. “And yet I could not sense it. You used the woman…?”
Dauntless began to laugh and didn’t even acknowledge the man’s question. “Ahahaha! This is too much… are you serious? ‘I looked and there before me was a pale horse. Its rider was named death and all the wild demons of Earth followed behind him.’ Certainly, your ‘horse’ is pale, but isn’t this a little underwhelming?”
The man favored the blank featured helmet of Dauntless with a sharp smile. “You may call me Straud, boy. No need to be so formal sd to address me as my higher calling. I’m only Death to my friends… and certainly, this is an unexpected meeting. How did you learn that I was going to target this woman?”
“Lucky guess,” Dauntless chuckled.
Suddenly, Straud’s face creased into a deep frown. “Don’t assume evading my Skill and you defeating these common beasts will change a single thing, boy. If I wanted it, you would all die without any recourse. Such is the mandate I carry. And that woman is necessary for my purpose. Stand aside and I will let the matter drop.”
“If you truly possessed that sort of power to take life, would you try and talk with me?” Dauntless rolled his shoulders. “But actually, our aims are not entirely opposed. If you pledge yourself as a subordinate to me, I will let you do whatever you want to the woman.”
There was a frozen moment as Straud’s eyes widened. Even from the distance, Ezekiel couldn’t believe how icy blue that gaze was. The fury contained there quickly became evident. The air around the man chilled. Of course, Ezekiel was mostly focused on the woman next to him in case she wanted to run away. Her glare tightened into something like hatred as she regarded the two men so casually discussing her fate as though she were naught more than chattel.
Some part of Ezekiel felt a small urge to reassure her they didn’t think about her that way, but he couldn’t bring himself to. Ezekiel had killed so many people for simply crossing his path while he was hungry. Feeling empathy toward the weak was a luxury he had forced himself to abandon. Otherwise…
Instead, Ezekiel opened his Eyes of Avarice and looked at this Straud. The Skills he saw were Bloodbeast Gestation Lvl 301, Blood Syphon Level 212, and Blood Manipulation Level 341. Which were truly the highest Level Skills that Ezekiel had ever seen. Yet most of his shock was to the fact that even this strange figure couldn’t stop his Eyes of Avarice in the same way that the woman could…
“Impudent,” Straud finally said as he seemed to measure Dauntless before him. Raising his hand, Straud pointed at the other man. Suddenly the imaginary figure riding a pale horse behind him was even clearer than it had been in the past. It seemed like there really was a rider there suddenly, cantering forward toward Dauntless over the ground and raising a scythe above its head. Ezekiel could hear the sound of the horse’s hoofs hitting the muddy ground. Those hooves seemed to muffle and suffocate all other noise in the surrounding area.
This level of image-
But before Ezekiel could even be shocked, the image already swung its weapon down toward Dauntless. There was a horrible roar torn from Dauntless’ mouth as he exploded upward to smash into the blow and then the two forces collided and Ezekiel’s Perception was blinded by the impact.
Dauntless was launched backward and crashed into a nearby tree. There was a sickening crack as Ezekiel watched Dauntless’s body impact the wide trunk of the tree and bend like a shrimp. Then the tree collapsed, landing on top of the limp form of Dauntless. Ezekiel blinked slowly as he the completely split helmet of Dauntless rolling on the bloody ground.
Straud’s cold blue gaze turned toward Ezekiel. “Now, the girl. Bring her here or you will be next.”
How the fuck is his image so strong… Ezekiel trembled as he regarded the broken form of Dauntless. Even… even though I’d heard about how powerful Randidly’s image was… but no one else but Randidly had managed to have a condensed image like that. How does this man-
“My patience has already been tested.” Straud barked out. “You have three seconds. If you do not act-”
“Ah…..” There was a moan from the side and then a limp shadow straightened and shoved aside the tree trunk that collapsed on his body. “Did you know how furious I was…? To watch him, standing up there, burning with an image. Standing at the pinnacle of humanity, daring challengers to step forward. And for me to only be an observer…”
Some part of Ezekiel had always wondered what face Ace was making under his helmet while he allowed the persona of Dauntless to take over his body. And now he saw it. Ace’s wide and expressive eyes were completely glassy like that of a taxidermy stag. His mouth was open in a slight grin and his tongue was hanging out of it. Huge, panting breaths had Ace’s shoulders heaving as he stared at Straud with murderous intensity.
For his part, Straud’s eyes slowly narrowed as he regarded Ace.
“I should have been on that stage,” Ace hissed and the air trembled. The dark water and unlit ship in Ace’s wavered with the intensity of the words. “It should’ve been me fighting against him, not that pup Alana. Only I… only we… we were best friends. We shared… and now, you are telling me that I get to experience an image almost that powerful? Even if its a knock off… I’m so happy. You have no idea. For giving me this experience, I’ll remember your name after I’ve crushed your skull.”
“A knock-off?” Straud said coolly. “Hmph, I hope you’ve made your peace, boy. Accept oblivion.”
Straud pointed again and the image of the rider cantered forward once more. But Ace only threw back his head and laughed. “I am Dauntless. Finally, Randidly, I’ll be able to see the view that you surveyed from that stage while the ants watched. Finally, I…!”
The image struck. The dark form of the wild sea behind Ace threw itself forward to impact the rider of the pale horse before it swung its scythe. Even so, the rider didn’t slow in its attack. The two images clashed and Ace’s surprising resistance was quickly ripped to shreds. The attack sliced downward and cut open a deep gash in Ace’s chest.
Ace stumbled backward two staggering steps but he did not fall. Instead, he laughed again, louder and louder as the joy in his chest built toward a crescendo. “Yes! Yes, this is it! So this is what an image should feel like! The weight, the density… it’s completely different! To think, Randidly has sharpened himself to this point while I was just…”
“You impudent shit,” Straud hissed. This time when he extended his hand, threads of red-violet energy seeped forward into the image. Very soon, the pale rider appeared completely present, without any of the usual insubstantiality of an image. “Fine then, I’ll show you why this world will soon be mine…!”