Igrin wielded an ornate staff with a chain-attached glass censer that clanked with every step he took down the hill, his mud caked red priest cloak fluttering behind him.
"Gareth! Tactics?" Herzt asked.
"'Swamp Gas' techniques like that have a big blast radius. Get close and I doubt even a puritanical zealot like him would want to roast himself alive."
"ALRIGHT LADS, YOU HEARD THE EXPERT, LETS STORM THIS FUCK!"
Everyone else was rushing Igrin before I realized it.
Igrin grinned his rat smile, and flame surged from his feet into a massive pyre before him, the flames licking at the snowy canopy.
The knights halted as the flames towered in front of them, only for a blazing hot glass censer to come sweeping through the pyre.
Artyom raised his shield just in time for the censer to crash into it, but the enchanted glass carried heat like no other, and set the wooden shield alight in a flash of fire.
The heat carried further through, making his shield arm swelter in the heat.
The censer retreated back into the pyre, leaving Artyom to quickly shirk the flaming shield and hurriedly drop to his knees as he plowed his arm into the ice cold earth that steamed as he desperately tried to cool the armor down.
"Artyom!" Herzt cried out.
"I'm fine! Arm just hurts like a bitch."
The way Artyom carried his arm and heaved in pain said otherwise.
Normally against chain-weapons, you could try and grab the chain and severely limit their mobility, but when that chain is so hot that it can set an entire shield on fire and make armor scald its wearer, what are you supposed to do?
I hung back, the other knights in the way of me getting in the action. I've been in enough wombo combos to know not to blob up like that.
You know, I could technically run from this. I could, but would I?
No. I could run, but what then?
I'd be a coward, and these bastards would make sure everyone knew that. They'd spread rumors about the Asian asshole who ran like a little bitch and from then on I'd be on the run for the rest of my life.
But then… I'd never be able to see Teia again...
"GARETH! STORM BURST THE PYRE!" Herzt called back.
Gareth's armor surged with static once more.
"GET CLEAR!" Gareth roared over his crackling armor before he outstretched his hands.
The cacophonous crack and flash of the Storm Burst buffeted the flames into the aether, only for a Flaming Skull to scream right back through the gap.
The torso-sized Fireball spell opened its maw, seeking to devour Gareth whole.
"GARETH!" Herzt cried out.
Gareth gritted his teeth, his stamina still returning to him after stretching a Storm Burst to that range. He prepared for the worst.
I rammed my body into Gareth's, catapulting the two of us down to the side and out of the way of the Flaming Skull. It struck the ground over their shoulders and broke apart like a water balloon filled with napalm.
We weren't going to win against the Pontiff like this.
Not because I cared about my comrades, but because I had a better way.
I had the Techniques of the Owl. It didn't matter that I only have two weeks training.
It's better than this shit.
Problem was that the assassin techniques meant that I had to slip out of sight to get a good angle. If any of the knights spotted the lack of me being there then Herzt would probably piss himself in rage. And that meant the Pontiff could be on his guard for me, and that would very possibly prove fatal.
I needed to bide my time, disappear from the radar. Only then could I start to do something.
The flames had cleared, and the Pontiff's censer rattled as if it was about to break apart. The chains expanded as if they were being repulsed by a magnetic field, the center swelling with heat until it finally ignited into a ball that was brighter than the sun itself.
"Bloody hell that's a Morning Star!" I heard Nathaniel say.
"RUN!" Herzt ordered.
The Pontiff raised the Morning Star high above his head. Then, in an exerted movement, he crashed the blazing censer into the freezing earth, unleashing a searing tidal wave that licked the canopy with a spray of liquid fire.
The knights managed to get to the scorched hill of corpses that we had carved through only minutes ago. Jakob and Mejg were slow, and the molten liquid soaked into their heels. They crumbled onto the hill, screaming in pain as the liquid burned their feet.
Gareth and I had stayed at range and ultimately had outrun the Flaming Tide, although our boots were scorched with muddy soot.
Gareth flipped his visor and downed a noxious mana potion, grimacing at the sulphite that I could taste from here. The air changed, and the sulphur smell turned to the clinical stench of ozone as static danced across his plate armor.
"HAH! The Great Captain scurrying away from a mere Rat! If only the Ruytzer General could see your mortality now!"
"SAYS THE PONTIFF WITH A MORNING STAR! FIGHT ME WITH A FUCKING SWORD AND SEE HOW THAT TURNS OUT FOR YOU!"
"My skills are not of the oh so noble blade! The Exodus demands great things from all of us, Captain. It teaches us that survival can only be achieved with the weight of every skill and talent at our disposal. To ignore my talents would be my death!"
"Then you shouldn't ignore me, rat!" Gareth roared over the crackling storm cloud that rested on his armor like a massive winter cloak.
For the first time, fear appeared in the Pontiff's eyes.
"Fleeting souls! In this time of need beyond need, I invoke your last vestiges of life! Add your wills to the final defense of your existence! Become the very Walls of Nhym!" the Pontiff ordered as fast as his voice allowed.
"JUDGEMENT OF JUPITER!" Gareth roared, and the storm cloud obeyed.
From the cloak, a cacophony of thunder echoed like a churning Chain Gun, the searing fierce light surging across the battlefield towards the Pontiff. The chaotic azure laser fractured into a thousand blinding pieces on impact, each compacted strand of lightning seeking something to earth it.
And the fusillade just kept going, crackling and piercing its way through any tree even remotely close to where the Pontiff had been. Trees toppled left and right, but the deafening roar of the salvo made their falls silent. The light was so bright that it was even reflected in the previously calm clouds above, becoming heavy with rain as if the gods themselves wept for the cruel sentence.
But the Pontiff didn't care.
The sentence had been carried out, but the Pontiff was still standing. The land had been eviscerated only mere centimeters from his feet, but beyond that his clothes had only turned to tattered rags. His body jolted and shuddered with static, but he was still standing.
The reason why was the oily layer in front of him that slowly moved with the faces of screaming and dying rats.
"NECROMANCER SCUM!" Herzt roared.
"Hehhh…" the Pontiff wheezed out an exhausted laugh, "My talents are many, Captain… And I have many more…"
His comrades were dead, but they were now more useful than they had ever been in life.
The Pontiff took in a deep breath, and the faces stretched into his lungs like smoke.
His eyes glossed over with an alien and hypnotic light as his body relaxed and let the spirits of the dead reanimate his aging and damaged body.
This was Necromancy at its most aggravating. Spirits, especially at this scale, were impossible to understand or control, but a living body with the willpower to control and subjugate them became something else. With how much the Pontiff had just let into his body, his soul was going to join them eventually and lose everything.
But the Pontiff had already lost everything. He knew he was going to die. The only thing left was to carve as much damage as possible before he truly lost control to the Amalgam.
Gareth's armor crackled with energy, the mana potion still stirring inside of him. He had only fifteen or so minutes before he started spewing up the noxious mixture for the next week. Mana potions were awful fucking things that no one in their right mind should ever try them, but the price of being sick for an entire week wasn't important.
The Pontiff had to die right now.
Letting his stamina return to him with superhuman vampiric speed, Gareth threw another bolt of lightning at the Pontiff.
In most Arcane Duels, the balance is often asymmetric. Each element has its own strengths and weaknesses that simply come with their respective mechanics.
Between Fire and Lightning, Lightning has a ranged advantage as Fire tends to saturate areas while Lightning sprawls out over the place. However, Lightning is fairly immobile, requiring intense channeling and time to be effective.
Shadow is useless against both of them, as they both produce intense light.
So here I was, finding an angle from which I'd never really need to fight.
My magic could get me in even in my heavy armor. I'd tried this a few times in my training and that did work. The only problem was that my stealth dropped off a cliff as soon as light was involved, and the Pontiff is currently wielding a weapon brighter than the Sun.
I saw only one way, and that was to approach from the shadow that the Pontiff's body was casting. That meant the Morning Star had to be stationary long enough for me to get in close.
Fireballs responded to Lightning Bolts, which were in turn popped by the now purely defensive Lightning Cloak on Gareth's shoulders.
Likewise, every Lightning Bolt was being swept aside by an Infernal Wind by the Pontiff swinging his Morning Star.
It was an utter standstill, and attrition was taking hold of the two dueling mages.
Either the Pontiff lost his control on the spirits that were supporting and animating his body, or Gareth's concoction showed its ugly side first.
The Pontiff's body spasmed, the spirits inside him each giving his muscles a completely incompatible order, launching a Fireball wide across to the Knights on the corpse hill.
Nathaniel dragged Mejg's rejuvenating body over to the other side of the hill just in time for the Fireball to detonate on the other side.
"Sir! We can't stay here!"
"We can't afford to run," Herzt said, "That bastard's going to use everything he has, and I'd rather not give Gareth the idea that we're giving up on his abilities."
It was then that something came up from Gareth's stomach.
He retched up Blue and Yellow lightning in his helmet, and toppled to the ground, flipping his helmet open to let as much of the vile contents out as he could.
Then he retched again, moaning in agony.
The Pontiff saw his chance and took it.
Gareth managed to see the Fireball just in time to raise his hand and blast it apart, but the blastwave was too close.
Caught directly by the explosion, Gareth was flung backwards, his coat of arms ablaze.
He retched out blue and yellow again.
It was then that he saw the river.
If he got to it then…
He crawled as fast as he could, plunging head first into the ice-cold water.
Moments passed on the surface…
"GARETH!" Herzt cried out, "YOU'LL PAY FOR THAT!"
"Will I now?" the Pontiff heaved, leaning against his staff pole, "I am already dead, Captain. I cannot pay anymore than I already have… But… Hehhhh… There is still time for you to pay for the thousands of lives you slaughtered…" The Pontiff grinned.
But not for long, as a blade emerged through his chest.
Those few seconds of gloating, of the stationary Morning Star, that was my chance.
I surged towards the Pontiff, my blade raised like a lance to run him down.
Shadow paved the way, my own magic deepening it to a matte black even in the embers and ash that littered the battlefield.
My blade pierced deep and true, my skills in almost all parts thanks to the vampire stamina and senses I enjoyed. The blade plunged through his torso, piercing his heart, and coming out the other side until only my hilt stopped me from going further.
I… had done it…
I… had won…
I looked up, and saw that I hadn't.
Instead I saw the Pontiff's vile smile looking back over his shoulder at me.
But it wasn't the Pontiff I was looking at anymore.
There was simply the visage of the Rat. One of rational cruelty, one of utter malice, one of pure hate.
I should have just slashed his head off.
I had made a mistake, and I saw my retribution coming.
The Pontiff, and all other priests of his faith, were used to self-flagellation, something I saw reflected in the myriad scars that lined his back. The practices were well memorised, and the movement was very simple for even the lowliest of rats to follow.
The Amalgam flung the Morning Star over its back, the heat searing me through my armor.
An answer came to me at the last second.
If Shadow fled from flame, then if I became Shadow…
I let go of my sword, and quickly cast Wick Step, partially transforming my body into Shadow. The shadow retreated from the intense light of the flame, and carried me with it. Without the heavy armor I felt like I could have jumped back several meters, but with it on I only managed just over one. But that was enough.
The Morning Star kept its momentum, and slammed into the Pontiff's back.
In his time, the Pontiff had never cried out, but the Pontiff was gone.
The Amalgam screamed out in his place and hurriedly tugged at the staff to stop its flesh from melting.
But the glass chains had become entwined with the sword hilt. The Morning Star super-heated the steel within seconds, literally melting out the Amalgam's heart.
The Amalgam ceased its screaming as the air had already evacuated from its shriveled lungs. It collapsed forwards, forcing the impaled sword to climb above its flaming corpse, the hilt glistening in the heat.
I collapsed to the ground, the light of victory warming my body on this late autumn day, gazing into the flames as my accomplishment silenced the very world itself.
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