A dark shape passed between the enormous limbs of the endlessly climbing trees. The movement was too fast and the cover too dense for me to make out any details. Even with Realmheart active, I could sense neither mana nor aether from the shadow in the brief moment I was able to see it.
“What was that?” Ellie asked, her voice high-pitched with nervous tension.
“We need to get moving,” I said, searching our surroundings for any hint of the passing shadow or the way forward.
The roots snaked through the water like winding paths, most wide enough to support a beast-drawn carriage. The water through which they grew was so clear that it disguised its depth, creating an optical illusion that made the mossy stones of the lake floor seem only inches below the surface.
“Up or down?” Caera asked, her eyes unfocused as she utilized whatever senses her drones provided instead of her own. “The branches are wide enough to navigate easily, even for your bear, and more densely woven together than the roots.”
I glanced at Sylvie, who was lying stiffly across Boo’s back shrouded in my armor. Ellie had one hand on her protectively. “That’s risky. If we’re attacked, any of us could be knocked off one of those branches.”
“Hey Chulio, as half a phoenix, what happens when you transform? Do you, like, only get one wing? Or do you just get the beak and tail?” Regis asked teasingly.
“I get no such sproutings from my buttocks. I can transform fully, but…it’s difficult to maintain such a form,” Chul admitted, apparently heedless of Regis’s quip.
Ellie conjured a band of mana that wrapped around Boo and Sylvie, holding my bond down. When that was done, three orbs of bright mana appeared and silently circled her right hand. The sweat beading her brow and the tight grimace across her face said everything I was already thinking: with both Chul and Sylvie present, this zone would be harder than anything we had faced on our last ascent.
“Chul, lead the way.” I indicated a nearby root that we could easily climb on and use to cross the water. “The roots are thicker in that direction.”
Chul marched to the edge of the small island we stood on and jumped casually onto the root, the top of which protruded six feet out of the water. He landed with unexpected grace for one of his size, looked around, and then extended his hand back to help up the next person.
Just as Caera reached for his hand, a dark blur streaked from the shadows, and Chul vanished within it.
Caera leaped back, narrowly avoiding a pair of long tails that scythed behind the speeding beast.
In the blink of an eye, the blurred shape had wheeled away from us, skirting the top of the water before pulling upward and rising into the web of oversized limbs above us.
I channeled aether into God Step, and the aetheric pathways lit up before my eyes. The paths spread out from me like violet lightning, connecting each point to every other, but only for fifteen feet. The pathways simply cut off, those directly around me severed from the paths everywhere else, both sets constantly in flux as they shifted and distorted but never reconnected.
A surge of energy from Sylvie was enough to explain exactly what was happening.
Black bolts of fire cut across the shadowy forest as I released the godrune. Caera’s shots missed, trailing after what I could now tell was a diamond-shaped creature with dusky flesh. It had two long whiplike tails, each with a nasty barb growing from the end. Despite its enormous bulk—its wingspan was as wide as Sylvie’s in her dragon form—it swam through the air with a greater speed than any fish in water.
Regis’s attention focused on the flying creature, an amused scoff ringing in my mind. ‘Looks like spicy chicken doesn’t agree with the demonic manta ray.’
“There’s something on its back,” Ellie said urgently, her sharp eyes picking up details the rest of us couldn’t make out. “I think it’s slowing down.”
Imbuing my vision with aether, I could make out the glossy red patch against its black hide. As I watched, the creature began to glow from within, its flight becoming erratic as the winglike protrusions wobbled. The indistinct red shape separated, vanishing into the water as the glow grew rapidly brighter. Flesh split, and orange flames leapt out of the resulting fissures.
A sharp screech suddenly erupted from the beast, causing my vision to spin as the vibration drove knives into my brain. In the distance, one of the beast’s wings clipped a tree, ripping the limb free of the body with a horrible wet tearing sound. The vibration intensified, then cut out entirely as the beast crashed into the lake, disappearing beneath the churning waters.
Shaking off the aftereffects of the vibrations, I jumped up onto the root where Chul had been attacked. I paused, searching the forest for any sign of danger before attempting to make out the aetheric pathways again.
I was just beyond the edge of the effect I’d seen, where the paths broke. The island we’d appeared on was still disconnected from everywhere else, but I could now sense my way to where Chul had crashed, and I wasted no more time before stepping into them. Appearing several hundred feet away atop the root closest to where the lifeless body of the creature was submerged, I was immediately inundated with hot steam as a cascade of furious bubbles erupted from the surface of the water, popping and foaming as the cloud obscured what was happening beneath the water.
Just as I was about to jump in, something burst out.
Chul was steaming and smoking. His skin had taken on an ashen gray color, and molten veins ran along his arms, neck, and across his face. His eyes blazed with internal light, shining through the steam. As I watched, though, the discoloration receded from his flesh.
He put out a hand to the root on which I stood, using it to support himself. “Wipe away your frown of concern. I am uninjured.”
‘Heya, boss man, Sylvie’s getting all—’
I cursed, suddenly sensing the chaotic influx of aether beginning to surge against the relic armor, leaking out and clawing at the air. I’d been too tuned into the monster and completely lost my focus on containing the aetheric spell.
Grabbing Chul, I God Stepped as close as I could to the others. The space inside the sphere of broken paths was growing rapidly, and the atmospheric aether was thick around them. Concentrating on Sylvie, I pushed the spell back down until it was once again fully housed within the relic armor.
“This seems like it might be just a little bit of a problem,” Regis said.
Caera’s cheeks paled as she searched the surrounding forest, her sword clutched tight in both hands. “I never sensed a thing from that creature. Only caught hints of its movement from my relic. Could anyone else feel its mana?”
Ellie shook her head. Beneath her, Boo growled in frustration.
“I sensed its maw when it closed around me,” Chul said, his weapon tossed casually over one shoulder. “Still, it died easily enough.”
From the disbelieving expression on Caera’s face, I knew what she was thinking. Had that creature grabbed her or my sister, the attack would have played out very differently.
There was a shift in the mana around Ellie, and her eyes dilated dramatically. She leaned toward Chul and sniffed. “They may not give off a mana signature, but there is a distinct scent to them. Oily and…ew, gross. Like, decayed fish. It’s kind of overpowering. Should be enough to tell me when one is around.”
“I do not see any reason for worry,” Chul said with a shrug. “I easily destroyed the skyray. If little sister can sniff them out from the stench left on my flesh, then we won’t be taken by surprise again.”
“Skyray? You know these creatures?”
Chul rested the head of his weapon on the ground and leaned on the haft. “I’ve heard tales of similar mana beasts in Epheotus. The abyssal skyray is an unparalleled predator, its mana control so perfect and its wings so swift that even phoenix hunters were sometimes taken unaware.”
“Abyssal skyray, huh?” Regis asked with a snort. “A little dramatic.”
“Does it really matter what it’s called?” Caera said, her neck on a swivel as she watched the trees. “What is our plan for getting through this zone with our lives?”
“The roots are too exposed,” I said, thinking out loud.
Down at water level, the roots stuck out, growing around each other in an intricate web. Above, the branches of the giant trees at least had foliage to offer us some cover. It seemed likely that these predators used them to stay out of sight while watching for anything that moved along the roots below. I could only hope we might be able to do the same.
Caera followed the line of my gaze. “Do you think we could get above where these creatures hunt? With your ability to teleport, we could climb for miles with relative ease.”
“That’s not so simple.” I rubbed the back of my neck. “Any time I take my mind off Sylvie, her power surges unpredictably, which only puts us in more danger.”
“Ah, I can solve this easily.” Chul lifted Caera like a child and set her on Boo behind Ellie.
Caera froze, holding her breath until it was over, then released it with a gust. “Please do not do that again,” she said stiffly as she adjusted her seat on the bear, looking incredibly uncomfortable.
Chul’s confusion was clear, but he only shrugged. “Hold on to the beast.”
Kneeling, Chul reached beneath Boo and scooped the guardian bear and everyone else up in his arms. “If this creature is akin to the skyrays of Epheotus, it will be drawn to quick movement.”
Chul didn’t wait for a response before floating up into the air, moving slowly toward the branches above.
I waited, watching all around for any sign of an attack. The forest was calm, and no attack came.
Channeling God Step but not activating it, I watched the rough sphere of disconnected pathways rise with Sylvie. When Chul had safely set Boo down, I God Stepped to them, just outside the sphere of Sylvie’s influence. In even the instant it took to do so, her spell lashed out, making my companions stutter like a graphical glitch in an old Earth video game.
I clamped down on my control over the effect, and everyone stabilized.
Caera quickly slid off Boo’s back, and I caught the glint of silver as her drones moved closer. “I don’t sense any movement nearby.
Waving to the others, I pointed along the branch. It was wide enough for twenty soldiers to march side by side before curving steeply down at the edges.
Showing no hesitation, Chul led the way. We moved cautiously, both to avoid creating noise or sudden movements that might draw attention and to keep our footing on the rough bark. I walked next to Boo, while Caera stayed between me and Chul.
Progress was slow, and the mood tense. My focus was split between concentrating on containing Sylvie’s spell, watching for any more skyrays, and searching for a path forward.
Caera and Ellie became our primary scouts. My sister’s beast will enhanced her senses beyond what I could accomplish with aether, and Caera’s drones let her search all around us for threats and easily-reached crossings between branches.
We moved outward, away from the tree’s trunk, and the branch narrowed slightly as we went. Our first transition to another branch was relatively easy. I chose one that crossed directly below our own, but which would keep us going in relatively the same direction. We were able to hop down to it without incident.
Keeping a slow but steady pace, we passed from branch to branch this way for thirty minutes or more without incident.
“Arthur, the water.” Ellie pointed over the edge to a wide stretch of clear lake below.
Formless red dots swirled in the lake, too far away to make out any detail. Even as I watched, a diamond-shaped shadow drifted down to the water, and a red speck leapt up onto its back. In moments, the skyray and its passenger vanished into the forest.
“Something was riding it,” Ellie said, leaning over the edge of the branch for a better look. “It looked—okay, this is weird, but it almost looked like a person.”
“Something akin to the sentient being we met in the snowy zone?” Caera asked, craning her neck curiously.
At a jolt of concern from Regis, I looked behind us just in time to see another skyray dive from above. Time seemed to slow down, and I watched the shadowy skyray descend foot by foot, inch by inch.
Conjuring an aetheric blade, I pivoted slightly, correcting my footing on the uneven bark, and leapt toward the monster. As I did so, its entire forward momentum ceased, then reversed, and it flew back up into the air out of reach. In a blink, it shifted again, changing position without seeming to move so that it was ten feet to the left of where it had been. Stranger still, I was back to standing on the branch.
Time, which had been nearly at a standstill, rushed forward so fast I couldn’t react to the skyray’s approach, not even to warn the others.
It struck our branch headfirst, its body splintering and gushing blood from the force. The branch shook so fiercely I stumbled to one knee, my sense of balance already thrown off by being whipped back and forth in time and space.
Ellie screamed, losing her footing completely, and Boo had to snatch her by the back of her armor so she dangled from his jaws like a cub.
Caera stumbled forward, and it looked like she was going to fall off the branch, but her foot pressed against solid air, and she shoved herself back onto more stable footing. Beside her, Chul had spun and brandished his weapon, but he could only blink in bewilderment as the skyray’s ruined body.
The branch shook again, and a tremendous crack resounded through the forest. The wood split where the skyray had struck, and the entire structure fell by a foot. Boo dug in his claws and hunkered low to the bark. Chul, reacting more quickly this time, grabbed Caera and floated up off the branch.
Making a split-second decision not to utilize any of my movement techniques, fearing that Sylvie’s magic may prove more dangerous than a fall, I bolted for Sylvie and Ellie.
Wood and bark splintered. All several hundred feet of the branch sheared free and fell, and we fell along with it. I could only just make out Caera and Chul flying above us before my body twisted away.
Somewhere in the distance, near the thinner end, the falling branch struck another tree limb and broke again with a sound like an earthquake.
With its momentum very briefly slowed, I struck the falling branch just as it exploded through the solid wood of the other. Pushing with both my hands and feet against the rough bark, I threw myself at Boo. The resulting impact carried us both out into open air as the falling branch collided with yet another colossal tree limb and both shattered with an earth-shaking crash.
Boo and I landed on the lower branch in a tangle of limbs, the wood beneath us quaking sickeningly, the air full of my sister’s screams.
Reinforcing my hold over the aether straining to break free of the relic armor’s constraints, I jumped back to my feet and searched for my sister, who was no longer held in Boo’s jaws. Regis manifested and went to Boo’s side, immediately on guard for any creatures that might be drawn by the noise.
Ellie was dangling from a visible tether of mana beneath the broken branch I was standing on, splintered wood still raining down around her. Far below her, the two titanic branches crashed into the lake with enough force to shake the very foundations of the skyscraper trees.
Ellie was no longer screaming. She was breathing hard with sweat running down her face in sheets, all her focus on the mana supporting her.
Reaching down, I tried to grab the arrow that the tether was connected to, which Ellie had shot into the side of the broken branch, but when my flesh touched the mana, the entire spell trembled.
“Don’t!” Ellie squawked, taking the mana rope firmly in both hands and closing her eyes in concentration. “I…can climb up.”
Before I could respond, movement drew my focus into the depths of the forest as a black streak banked around a distant tree and sped toward Ellie. Three bizarre creatures were clinging to the skyray’s back, chittering madly and brandishing strange, organic weapons.
Aether coalesced in my fist to form a sword, but the energy pressing out from Sylvie surged as I split my attention.
Beams of black fire lanced down from a higher branch. Two burned across the skyray’s back, making its flesh bubble and swell, like a scab forming. The third hit one of the creatures in the chest and sent it tumbling into the open air and down toward the waters below, still churning from the wreckage of falling branches.
Sparing a quick glance, I saw Caera pressed flat against the trunk of a neighboring tree, her sword out but focus entirely on controlling the drones. Chul was facing a second skyray as the creature wheeled above.
Behind me, Boo moaned in despair, dancing back and forth as he peered over the edge in the direction Ellie was currently crawling hand over hand up the mana tether.
Regis suddenly bolted past me and leaped off the broken branch. His body swelled outward, the flames becoming jagged, his fur like sharpened spikes, and wings sprouted from his back. He collided with the skyray, and Destruction leapt from his jaws and he tore into it midair. I felt it as dozens of knifelike legs, which ran in rows along the skyray’s belly, cut and slashed at his hardened hide, but only in the same vague way the pain reached Regis’s brain through the influence of Destruction.
Ellie reached the point where her mana arrow stuck out from the broken branch and got a handhold in the bark. I grabbed her by the back of her armor and lifted her easily onto solid ground—or at least, the closest proximity to solid ground we had. She wasted no time in dismissing her spell and taking cover at Boo’s side.
Regis and the skyray were plummeting toward the lake hundreds of feet below. One of the creatures clinging to its back was thrusting a three-pronged spear at my companion, each impact like the sting of a bee, but the other was no longer visible.
Until a moment later, when it clambered up the side of the branch we were standing on, giving me my first good look at it.
Although humanoid in its torso and arms, a wide, flat tail covered in interlocked plates made up its bottom half. Like the skyray, the underside of this tail sprouted dozens of hooked legs that easily gripped the dense bark, letting it skitter across the tree’s surface like a termite. Fins grew like wings from its back, and the entire humanoid torso was covered in very fine scales.
Clutched in its clawed, webbed fingers was a chitinous shortsword the same light-red hue as its scales. Four small eyes glared from above two slitted nostrils in its flat face, and its broad mouth opened in a snarl, revealing rows of needlelike teeth.
An arrow zipped past me, striking the crustacean creature in the chest. The mana arrow rippled outward, deflected, and then dissipated, failing to damage its target.
Buttressing my hold on the relic armor and Sylvie within it, I split my focus and sent aether out to my muscles and joints, reinforcing not only my legs and lower body, but my shoulders, chest, and arms as well. If I was fast enough…
I stepped forward, utilizing the Burst Step technique to cross the distance between me and the creature in an instant. At the same time, aether flowed up my spine and through my shoulders, down my arms, and into my forearms, wrists, and knuckles. At each muscle and joint, the aether combusted in a perfectly timed burst, each driving my strike forward with an exponentially growing amount of speed and force.
The mercreature’s upper body came apart in a gory red spray as my fist collided with its sternum. Its lower body stumbled back and forth for a breath before tipping off the side of the branch and spiraling away into the distance.
Despite my best effort, my ironclad grip on Sylvie’s spell slipped. From the corner of my eye, I saw Ellie and Boo stutter, and the arrow conjured against Ellie’s bow string exploded. She was lifted off the ground and slammed into Boo’s side.
I sprinted to catch her before she fell. She was shaking and staring down at her arm in shock. The dwarven bow had splintered, and a bone was protruding through the skin of her forearm.
She pushed against my chest with her good hand and took a halting step away. “G-give me some room to breathe, Art…”
Mana wrapped around her forearm before tightening like a splint. Ellie gave an agonized cry and sagged back against Boo, trembling from head to toe, and the mana sputtered.
I ripped free a chunk of bark. “Here, bite down on this.” I held it up, and she took it between her teeth.
Boo rumbled and pressed his nose against her cheek. Golden light suffused her, traveling down into her chest, and the shaking eased.
The conjured splint continued to tighten, forcing the bone back down beneath the skin. With a twist of her arm, she set the broken bones back into place. Though swollen and purple, the steady flow of blood slowed to a trickle, held in by the mana.
She wiped away her tears with the back of her good arm, then struggled to stand straight. “Something mom showed me, just in case. Now c-come on…” Although her face was pale and beaded with sweat, she straightened. “We can’t waste any more time.”
Nodding, I turned away, curling and uncurling my own hand.
My arm, from my knuckles to shoulder, twinged with pain. The Burst Strike technique seemed like a natural extension of Burst Step now that my asuran physique could handle the strain, but I’d had precious little time to practice it. Unlike a step, where all my carefully executed pushing force went down into the ground and was absorbed, a punch fueled by so much speed and precision delivered almost as much impact back to me as it did to my target, causing a series of micro-tears and fractures up my arm.
Clenching my fist, I followed along with my body’s healing, aware of each torn muscle and strained tendon as they fused, wishing I could extend the same power to my sister and heal her arm.
But there was no time to linger on my mistakes. Ellie jerked to a stop as she clambered one-handed onto Boo’s back, staring into the limbs above. “I heard wind over wings. And…I can smell another one.”
There was no more discussion before we began moving again, sprinting along the branch with Chul at the front. Ellie, her arm bound and in a sling and her weapon destroyed, stayed on Boo’s back, her good arm holding onto Sylvie. Caera rushed along between Boo and Regis, half her focus on the drones zipping through the foliage around us. Although I couldn’t sense the skyray’s mana signatures, I kept Realmheart active, watching the movement of both mana and aether for any sign of further danger.
Before we’d even transitioned to the next branch, a speeding skyray passed overhead, moving in the direction of the fallen limbs. Thanks to Ellie and Caera’s warning, we were able to duck into a thicker patch of sail-sized leaves, letting it vanish behind us.
But as we came out of her hiding spot, another appeared, this one with two of the crustacean mercreatures riding on its back. One clicked and squawked, jabbing its two-pronged spear in our direction.
I let out a frustrated curse. “Go, keep moving!”
Slamming the ball of his weapon into the palm of his hand, Chul sprinted onward. Boo sped up to match him, but I could tell Caera was struggling to split her focus. She seemed to consider for a moment, then leapt on Regis’s back. He paused only long enough to let her situation herself, then bolted after the others.
In an instant, the skyray spun around and came down from behind us, but it didn’t attack. Instead, it released a subsonic vibration like the death knell of the first one we’d encountered. Pushing aether into my ears to dampen the noise, I stared around, certain of what would come next.
As I expected, another skyray appeared from behind the first. Then a third, banking sharply through a thick tangle of branches to our right.
“There are two more below us,” Caera said, twisting around on Regis’s loping back to face me. “Each with a handful of those scaled creatures. They’re penning us in!”
Considering the skyrays’ speed, there was no way for us to outmaneuver them. With this being such an obviously coordinated attack, however, I knew that stopping to fight it out might allow even more enemies to find us. “Keep moving,” I ordered after taking a second to think.
Sylvie, now would be a great time to snap out of it, I thought, not expecting a response.
Suddenly one of the skyrays wheeled around and set down on the branch a hundred feet ahead of us. Its three riders scrambled off, then split up, crawling along the sides and beneath the branch itself. Another skyray landed behind us, and two more riders dismounted, their weapons drawn as they charged toward us on dozens of knifelike legs.
Black beams of soulfire scored the air. Two struck the skyray, causing the flesh to bubble and pop. The other two beams fired left and right, aimed at the mercreatures skittering along the vertical edge of the branch.
At the same time, a glowing white bolt shot from Ellie’s palm. It curved down around the outer edge of the branch, followed an instant later by a concussive blast that I felt through my soles.
I focused on Sylvie, on the armor and the spell surrounding her body. Keeping Sylvie’s unconscious spell in check was my priority.
With Sylvie fully centered in my consciousness, I utilized just the periphery of my thoughts to conjure an aetheric blade forty feet behind me and slash wildly with it.
The attack was clumsy, swinging too short, and the crustacean mercreature jumped back to avoid it. And even that failed effort caused a jolt that made Boo miss his footing and stumble, nearly toppling my wounded sister.
Still, in the second that bought us, Chul’s round-headed mace went flying. He threw it like a missile, and the fissures in the head roared with flames before ripping through flesh and bone and nearly splitting the monster in half.
To our left, a red-tinged mercreature scampered up the branch’s side, its many stabbing legs easily clinging to the thick bark. Streaks of soulfire scored the air like the very shadows of Ellie’s conjured bolts, throwing the mercreature off balance for Regis to finish with a whip-crack slash of his tail.
Chul sprinted right over the corpse of the skyray as his weapon returned to his hand, and Boo and Regis kept pace as we continued in his wake.
“Below us!” Ellie shouted, pointing toward the base of a neighboring tree.
Moving like termites, dozens of the mercreatures were rapidly scaling the towering structure. They moved up as fast as we were able to sprint along the horizontal surface, and it seemed as if they intended to cut us off.
I scanned the nearby branches through a hail of spellfire, looking for a way to change course.
Without my full arsenal of abilities, there was nowhere else to go but straight forward. As we ran, I searched the shadows of every branch and root for any signs of an exit portal. This zone wasn’t a limited space like a cave, but more like Three Step’s snow-covered zone, or the desert Taci and I had destroyed. In both places, which seemed to expand forever, the zone itself had led me to the destination. We had followed the branches in the most natural direction, which I hoped meant—
My eyes caught on something, a straight edge among rough and winding organic shapes. I had only barely noticed it half-hidden within a cluster of entangled roots far out into the lake below us.
Ellie confirmed my suspicions immediately, her glowing brown eyes focused into the distance. “It’s the portal!”