My mind raced at the sheer stupidity of Thisbey for a moment, but then I gave pause. While Thisbey was a slimy snake in the grass, he wasn't an idiot. He wore that damn leather to fuck with me, and he wholeheartedly believed he had control of this situation. The robed guards might be why.
My doubt faded. Thisbey better pray they could stop me.
I bent down, ready to launch myself like a missile. Before I leaped, Thisbey announced,
"Now I love giving a speech in someone's honor, but I must confess - I'm not here to do so. I've other matters to attend to, least of which is celebrating this here hero."
He locked eyes with me, "On the other hand, the most important matter involves that pretty lady of yours. You come crashing up here, and we might not be able to guarantee her safety."
The runes over my armor glowed red inside the gray confines of my disguise. I charged a singularity in my blood, my rage palpable. I silenced my wrath, saying,
"You caught Althea? Yeah, doubtful."
Thisbey pressed his fingertips together, "Yet I knew when and where she was to silence me." He brushed off his jacket, "Yet here I am, safe and sound. The can't be said for your darling if you don't think things over very carefully."
How he knew all this was beyond me, but I honed in and focused on his every word. Even if I wasn't some genius, I had a head between my shoulders. If I was going to step out on top of this situation, I would need to use it.
"Why should I trust you?"
"You shouldn't, though you can check your status and see if she's alive. Assuming you two are in the same party or guild that is. Based on you two's relationship, that's hardly a presumption."
I took a moment and thought this over. Althea dying wasn't an option, but both of us dying was even worse. At the same time, I was confident Thisbey didn't have the means to adequately restrain or hold Althea back. Also if he did, I could break her out even with explosive methods if it came to that. Etorhma's tears guaranteed she'd survive even if those around her didn't.
With that in mind, I stood up straight. Instead of letting on how much I was thinking, I played the part of a big, dumb fighter,
"Show me where she is-" I grimaced, "unless you enjoy the feeling of worms eating your corpse."
Thisbey leaned back, his eyes widening. A bead of cold sweat went down his forehead as he grabbed his collar. He still feared me, and rightfully so. By now, the entire crowd was confused as well. The cameramen already shut down the live streams, and the power around us shut off, casting the masses in darkness. The pillar of light from the sky illuminated the two of us, each facing one another.
I leaned back down, threatening to leap as he raised a hand to me, "Wait! I'll take you to her. That was my intention all along."
I pulled myself up with a gravity well, ascending into the sky of Giess. I got myself into Event Horizon's range as I shouted, "I have a magical aura that can kill you instantly if you try anything."
Despite my pressure, Thisbey kept his cool despite some cold sweat, smiling, "I wouldn't even think of it. Now, if you wouldn't mind, we have a date with destiny, and she's rather impatient."
I rolled my shoulders, getting closer to the slimeball. Thisbey pointed North, "We'll be heading over the silver's territory. Follow along now."
I did as he said, having already sent messages to Kessiah, Althea, Torix, and my gialgathen followers about the situation. As I did, Thisbey smirked and chuckled to himself. He oozed confidence despite knowing how quickly I could kill him. There was a reason behind that. There had to be.
After floating for several minutes, Thisbey struck up a conversation,
"Do you want to know why I despise gialgathens?"
"No. I don't care either."
He scoffed, "Well I'll tell the story to the sky. Perhaps she'll listen."
I rolled my eyes as the chatterbox continued.
"Despite my appearance and wealth, I came from humble beginnings. The humblest, in fact. My great grandfather was an espen slave. My father was a servant to that same family of gialgathens. If I followed their footsteps, I'd of ended up the same. I saw through the facade those beasts put up, however."
I frowned, "Of course you did."
His brow furrowed, "They look down on even you still, and you're this world's greatest bipedal fighter. If you can't earn their unanimous respect, what is a mere spokesperson supposed to do? Lay beneath their feet and rot?"
"Just go about your business. You don't have to make your life revolve around them."
He shook his head, a grin of derision plastered onto his face,
"I beg to disagree. Without fail, those giant amphibians will make your life revolve around theirs...if you give em a chance. I happen to have a streak of defiance in me, so I oppose their subtle oppression. On the other hand, my father was different."
Thisbey shook his head, "My father was a great man, not in birth but in character. A man of morals, dignity, and work ethic. He served Lehesion when I was a child, and to me, there was no greater goal to aspire to. He meant the world to me, and without my mother to help guide us, he did his best."
Thisbey pursed his lips, "His best wasn't good enough. I watched him carry a hundred-pound bag of wet salt up a mountainside. As he fell from exhaustion, they put the bag on another man and left him to die. I defied them, but they burned my back for my outbursts."
Thisbey pulled up his coat, revealing deep burns covering most of his back. He sighed, "And I promised that day to make him pay for marring my skin. Through a tenacious effort, I escaped, created an empire of business, and I had that gialgathen flayed alive."
He gestured with his suit, his eyes hard as iron, "And I still wear that skin to this day. It reminds me that even if they look down on me for this weak body I own, they can never look down on me for my spirit. I will do anything and everything it takes to achieve my goal of equality."
He grimaced, "Even if that means doing some acts that are...distasteful."
I crossed my arms, hovering above the forest-scape, "Distasteful?"
He met my eye with a charming grin, "Yes. Distasteful."
He took a deep breath before cracking his knuckles. We passed into the silver's territory before I snapped, "How much longer before we reach her?"
Thisbey glanced down at an unnecessary watch, "Oh, it shouldn't be much longer now. You'll understand soon why I'm at ease."
It was my turn to grin.
"You shouldn't be."
"I'll let you decide that after I've revealed my hand. I've already seen yours after all."
We passed over a set of hills before moving into the spire forest. After diving beneath a cove of spires, we dashed into a dark cavern with nothing illuminating its bottom. A lone pillar of light leaked in from the entrance, revealing us.
My senses were not so dull that I didn't understand what was in this cavern, however. When I entered it, my hair stood on end. Deep within me, a primal fear surged forth. A haunting, ragged breath emanated throughout the entire expanse, the deep voice mangled beyond repair. It gasped, unable to restrain itself from struggling. It gave the same deformed growl as Emagrotha had.
It was bad news, no two ways about it. My guess was that Thisbey grafted a hybrid to a gialgathen from the sounds of it. If it increased its power even more, then I wasn't able to beat it in 1v1 combat. I opened my status, sending a message to Helios to call in the favor for saving Caprika. It came with coordinates as well, letting him know where I was at.
Thisbey opened his own status, staring at an invisible notification. His eyes opened wide before he tugged at his collar, "Let's hurry now. I wouldn't want to keep your miss waiting."
My eyes narrowed. That was twice now that the asshole reacted oddly as I sent a message. That would make sense if I were interacting with the screen, but I wasn't. I was doing all my commands mentally. I distracted Thisbey with banter, preparing to send another message to test my theory,
"What's that breathing in the distance?"
He grinned at me, "Well, he's how we pinned down your lady. She's quite difficult to restraint otherwise. But enough of that. It comes later."
Mentioning his puppet calmed him down, his nonchalance unnerving me. Whatever waited in the dark, it was enormous beyond measure. Trying to see it, I channeled mana into my armor, making it glow. A portion of Thisbey's coat caught on fire. He slapped it out while cursing, "What in the hell are you doing? Have you lost your mind?"
I shrugged, "It was entirely accidental. I forgot you were like paper mache compared to me. My mistake."
It was anything but a mishap. It had the intended effect as Thisbey brushed off some imaginary dust from his shoulders, "I don't mind defiance boy, but I do mind stupidity. Another stunt like that and Althea is dead."
"Then you will die right after, along with everyone else here. Your puppet can't save you." I snapped my fingers, "From a death happening faster than a snap of my fingers."
Thisbey froze up for a second, but he composed himself, "Now, now, I told you all that comes later. Calm yourself and allow me to show you to her prison."
The orange glow from my armor illuminated a tiny portion of the cave, enough for us to navigate. Deep in its depths, we reached a broad platform of stone. We stood at opposite ends, the heat off my armor making the three of them uncomfortable. Thisbey channeled a bit of black mana into it a podium of rock, and the platform sunk down with all of us on it.
I chided, "Of course you'd have dominion mana."
Thisbey only nodded in return. As we sunk down into the miles of metal and stone, I prepared a message to send all of my guildsmen. It was a message for springing a trap against Thisbey at this location. It was a completely bullshit message, but I wasn't about to send it. I had other goals in mind.
With Thisbey thrown off from my earlier stunt, he opened his status, glancing at something. As he did, he coughed into his hand. He turned to his guards,
"Be ready for some undue surprises."
They nodded silently. I kept my face frozen, but underneath my calm, I realized something pivotal - Thisbey was reading my status. I didn't know when or how, but he could see it and react in real time. I burrowed through my memories, trying to figure out when he did it, but I didn't know enough to pinpoint the breach. After peeling Thisbey's face off and shoving it down his throat, I'd be hiring a hacker or the like to discuss security options.
As I delved further into the implications, my heart sank as the repercussions rippled over me. These events all began making sense. My status was how the Skyburner bases had next to no information present. Even more important, this was how he caught Althea. He understood when and where the assassination would take place, then he would counter it.
That meant I sabotaged the attempt each time I sent her a message about it. It was my fault.
My blood ran colder as we continued to sink, but I held the guilt inside. I couldn't give Thisbey any more tools to work with. I had walked into traps before, and I needed every advantage I could get. My mind raced with possibilities as we reached a narrow corridor. Thisbey led the way, pacing further still before entering a dimensional shift.
I raised my eyebrows, "We're in a rift. That's a surprise. You cozy up to eldritch now?"
Thisbey raised a hand and grinned at me, "Mighty keen of you to sense that. There's a good reason we're here."
No matter the reason, being in a rift improved my chances of succeeding by an order of magnitudes. One of my trees, Obliterator II, doubled my damage while in an opened rift. They wouldn't know that since I hadn't checked that tree in well over a year. The data connection for my status opened up as well, a sort of wifi connection appearing as it had before in other rifts.
I blinked, thinking about the revenant's hidden language and exile from the system. Maybe these guys hid in a rift to prevent that, slowing down Schema's updates. There were more obvious reasons for him being here though.
"You need eldritch for your experiments with the Hybrid."
The guards turned to me then Thisbey, their eyes showing from their slitted hoods. They widened in shock. I smiled under my helmet. Heh, I could use this to my advantage.
I continued, "You're using Harvesters to graft silvers onto espens and gialgathens alike. I'm surprised you haven't used these guards for experimental material yet in fact. Perhaps you will after this."
At this point, the guards stared at each other with a remarkable intensity. Thisbey turned to them, "I assure you, we've done nothing of the sort here. Besides, neither of you have anything to lose anyway. Schema's already thrown you out. That's why we've paid you so well in the first place."
Thisbey's words calmed the guards down somewhat, letting them regather their composure to an extent. Unfortunately for him, it gave me something to work with. I wasn't about to let my chance slip.
"Well isn't that interesting. Yenno, I've been exiled twice now from the system. Schema's far more forgiving then you'd imagine, however. I'm not even considered an unknown anymore, and I've dabbled in plenty of illegal acts," I glanced at my nails, acting like the situation wasn't even stressful like Helios always did. I figured it would put some pressure on them both.
As that went on, we reached the end of a hallway. A set of orichalcum doors sealed us from the hidden room, runic work covering the walls. The enchantments sealed in the area, keeping it quarantined. Spread over the runes were oaths written in blood. They created a seal inside the area, and it revolved around fogging the mind.
I took another deep breath, smelling the familiar stench of a revenant's blood. It had a sterile, bleachy scent to it once it dried. I remembered facing an antimagic revenant before. When we faced off against Yawm, a group of Breaker's attempted killing him. One of the revenants could use antimagic, making her critical to their success. She might carry a specific bloodline for that trait like Kessiah did with her own Blood Arts.
As I glanced at the runes further, I grimaced as I trusted my instincts here. They used their connections to get the blood necessary to create an anti-magical field. Before stepping inside, I channeled enough mana for a singularity in my blood, energy radiating from my frame. I hid my mana saturation with the glow of my armor, prepared to unleash havoc.
We stepped up to the doorway as Thisbey raised a hand to me,
"Try not to make any sudden moves. We wouldn't want anything devastating happening to your significant other."
I glared down at the little man from across the hallway,
"No. We wouldn't, would we?"
He averted my gaze before channeling his mana into the doorway. Seconds later, and the orichalcum doorway pulled open. White light poured from fluorescent light bulbs, their sterile glow casting the room in an eerie light. As with the other camp, tubes of experiments floated in suspension fluid. Beside them, living researchers from a variety of races toiled in front of their monstrous playthings.
An orichalcum floor covered the expansive room, making everything green. The runic work covered every square inch of the floor. The same terminals were used here as the other facility, allowing off the grid communication. They even used paper for most of their work since Schema couldn't access it.
Seconds after walking in, a thin mental haze clouded my mind. It reminded me of being tired and wanting to sleep, a sensation I hadn't felt in years. I glanced to the side of the doors. From each side, orange, pulsing sacks ebbed on the surface of two humanoids. Their metallic frames gurgled with each breath, both of them around ten feet tall.
They were smaller, thinner Hybrids.
My eyes widened as Thisbey snapped his fingers. Both of the Hybrids lurched forward, grabbing the guards beside him. I turned to him while two more Hybrids close the doorway behind us. As the guards howled in agony, Thisbey sighed,
"I intended on keeping you both for a bit longer, but seeing as you threatened a mutiny of sorts, you closed out my options."
The Hybrids assimilated them in seconds, each of them gorging on the guardsmen. From the scene of abject horror, violet skin peeked out from the crunching armor and robes. They were revenants, likely hired to help Thisbey from Tohtella. I managed to keep myself composed despite the sudden carnage.
Well, for the most part.
"What the fuck is wrong with you?"
Thisbey rolled his eyes, "Do you think my image would remain salvageable if I brought two of these heathens with me as my guards? Not even those revolutionaries would swallow something so sinister. I had to bring two others along to dissuade you from threatening me further."
Thisbey laughed before saying, "It was a mighty fine gamble if I do say so myself. Now that you're here, I don't think we'll have any more problems."
I reached out a hand, attempting to form a singularity. My mana was still there, but the mental fog stopped me from shaping it. Thisbey pointed at me, and the two Hybrids lunged towards me. I took several steps back, analyzing them both. Their statuses were identical.
Version 1.0(lvl 10,000) - This being is a mixture of harvester DNA, silver biology, and an espen host acting as a central nervous system. From terminals, we've gathered the primary means of production involves the destabilization of the Harvesters bodies. This creates a DNA cocktail of genetic matter.
Once injected into various subjects, certain ones mutate. Others accept the shift in their DNA structure. After this process, further refinements are made by introducing drastic changes to their metabolisms. Silver constructs are surgically implanted, allowing scientists to monitor the rate of their infection.
The vast majority of subjects die during this process; however, the few that survive are reborn as mindless Hybrids. They possess enormous physical might though next to no level of intelligence. These processes were discovered and implemented by Tohtella's team of parasitic researchers. She used her position as Head Speaker to utilize Schema's own resources.
After honing down the process over two decades in dozens of laboratories, they discovered a means of control subjects. Through the injection of Yana worms, they created functional yet braindead creatures. Using cybernetic enhancements, they molded them into powerful puppets. Though volatile, they are loyal and steadfast.
Kill any all that you come in contact with immediately. They cannot be allowed to exist.
I smashed one's face before spinning on my feet and elbowing the other one's chest in. The other Hybrid's joined the effort as Thisbey raised a hand,
"They aren't killing you, my friend. They're just restraining you. No doubt you noticed the enchantments in this room, correct? It stops you from controlling your mana. Without control, you can't make it do anything, like that aura of yours. It won't work here. All you have is your raw physical might. Now while it's impressive, it's no match for these brutes. Settle down. We've got time yet."
Underneath my helmet, I stayed quiet and did as he asked. Hybrid flesh singed, grabbing my armor. At the same time, I couldn't help but smile. He believed my aura was attached to mana, and that was a fatal mistake. While true I couldn't mold my mana even in the slightest, Event Horizon didn't require mana. It was an innate ability of my armor, much like my enhanced dimensional storage or increased resistances.
Still, it didn't hurt the situation to check. I attempted molding Event Horizon. It shifted under my will, natural as breathing. With that trump card in my hand, I let Thisbey take control of the situation. He seemed like the gloating, petty type.
I wasn't wrong.
He grabbed his jacket, flourishing it in front of me,
"Ah, that's better, isn't it? I do hate having my life on the line, but sometimes it must be done to uphold my ideals. Of course, you understand I imagine?"
"Where are you taking me?"
"Why, to your significant other. I stick by my promises."
I growled from deep in my chest, "If you experimented on her-"
"We haven't had time for that. Letting you reveal your identity would've ruined my plans, and that's simply not something I could allow to take place. See, we need people to believe you are who you say you are. You likely already know why."
I pretended like I was trying to jump at him, letting the Hybrids restrain me. I was hoping he trusted they could stop me utterly. Thisbey shook a finger side to side,
"Tsk, tsk, I wouldn't try that. Even if you're stronger than they are, these Hybrids are evil things. They'll crawl through your flesh like worms through dirt if you keep acting up."
He didn't know about my armor's own infectious qualities. I almost trumped Version 2.0's individual rate of infection. These Hybrids were inferior by comparison, so overwhelming them wasn't off the table. With that, I had two trump cards at my disposal now. I wiggled my armor to make sure it was responsive. I didn't want the mana restriction to stop me from moving myself due to my blood magic.
It wasn't a problem. It was more like the thought required to lift a finger rather than accomplishing a complex equation. That's what channeling mana felt like normally. This was a massive advantage to me, many of my abilities unhampered by his restrictions.
Thisbey continued, none the wiser,
"I'm glad you understand. Now follow me if you want to live for a few more minutes. You can die right here if you'd like. It doesn't really matter to me anymore. Your usefulness has dried up."
I kept silent, following him. The scientists continued at their work, ignoring the massacre behind them and the Hybrids restraining me. If anything, they worked even harder. Fear was a powerful motivator after all, and that bloodbath would instill it in hardened veterans let alone scientists. That told me these weren't warriors, however.
Hybrids were the majority of his forces. That made things simpler.
I let the Hybrids drag me to behind Thisbey. As they did, their footsteps dented the orichalcum beneath them. Without dispersing my weight, I was a Goliath to these creatures. They scrambled to hold me up as we passed through a doorway. Above, a massive earthquake rippled through the entire facility, as if an eruption occured above.
The orichalcum shivering under strain. Thisbey let out a sigh of relief, spreading out his hands, "This will be the day of their reckoning. It will be glorious..but let's keep moving."
Once inside, we discovered many prison cells full of deformed people wallowing in anguish. Thisbey shook his head,
"It's amazing how many espens rejected my philosophy of growth and prosperity. It's a simple thing stopping them, however. At the same time, they make for useful materials. If you're lucky, you might end up like them."
He turned to me, a sadistic smile on his face, "You remind me of Emagrotha though, and I hate her almost as much as Lehesion. However, we happened to make use of them. We'll make use of you too."
Once more, I kept quiet. After passing the barred cells, we reached another doorway leading towards the center of the rift. A blue dungeon core radiated with energy, sending a pillar of white light up into a containment capsule. Inside of it, Althea appeared frozen in time like a life-like statue. She wore the armor I gave her, her blackened chainmail giving her an edge of danger despite her beauty.
Thisbey pointed at it, "That woman is carnage given form. She killed dozens of our guards, slicing them apart. She almost killed me before I called in my trump card. He froze her in time using a tremendously powerful temporal dilation. That's how we took her here before using the dungeon core to power his enchantment."
I furrowed my brow a bit. I was immune to temporal dilation because of what I was made of. I was almost sure my armor gave some sort of dimensional resistance as well, making Althea less vulnerable. She could've escaped.
Thisbey laughed, long and loud while facing me. I faced him but looked up to Althea with only my eyes. Still standing in place, she winked her eye at me. A bolt of confusion overwhelmed me before the situation cleared.
Althea had let herself get captured on purpose.
A wicked smile spread over my face. Althea wasn't letting herself get captured to be a damsel in distress. She was using herself as bait to bring us right to the core of the enemy's operations.
Thisbey continued in ignorance, "You heard that rumble above us, didn't you? That trump card is on its way to Rivaria to raze it to the ground."
I stayed muted. Thisbey cackled, a bit of an unstable edge in his voice, "That puppet of mine is going to devour the gialgathens as food. It will be the ultimate irony. Their greatest hero turned their greatest enemy. It will be justice in its greatest glory, a feast for the ages. Metal turned flesh. Flesh turned metal."
Something was wrong with Thisbey. Something very wrong. Before he continued further, I sent a message to Helios giving him the coordinates to Rivaria and telling him to go there. Thisbey glanced at his status before walking up and tapping my helmet. Yup, he could see my status.
He tilted his head at me,
"You think it's fun watching you big, bulky idiots make the decisions? You think it's easy to sit and wait for the right moment to strike? Of course it isn't. This kind of plan took decades to accomplish. Without Tohtella's assistance, I'd never have succeeded."
Thisbey's eyes widened, "And some other more...sinister forces. I paid the price for that. It will be worth it in the end."
I scoffed, "I can tell. You've tampered with Old Ones, and they've begun invading your weak little mind."
Thisbey snapped his fingers, his eyes narrowing at me. The Hybrid's dug into my armor, sticking needles into my skin. I pretended that it hurt, screaming aloud. Behind Thisbey, Althea grinned at my acting. It wasn't perfect, but it got the job done.
Thisbey took a deep breath, "That's nothing compared to what awaits you. Now watch her die."
It was time to act. I glanced up, "That trump card's gone then, isn't it?"
"And what of it? You're food for these puppets."
I grinned, Event Horizon stretching over the Hybrids. They writhed around me, scrambling to escape. Entangled in my darkened skin, I dug into their bodies, devouring the four of them from the inside. As the Hybrids deformed into shapeless blobs around me. I pried my arm from the Hybrids.
Thisbey took a few steps back from me, fear spreading over his face. My fingertips elongated and wrapped around his frame. They pulled him to my palm. I lifted him to my facemask as it cracked open, revealing the jagged jaws of my armor.
With a vicious smile spread over my helm, I growled, "You've created dark things here. You will find I am a dark thing as well."
Thisbey looked around, praying for help. There was none. I continued, the jaws of my armor widening,
"But I am more than a mindless monster."
Thisbey screamed. My calm voice flooded over his,
"I am the eater of monsters."