Stairways make for a lousy place to fight. The bone stealer didn’t seem to mind though. It came at us less like a pouncing predator and more like a thunderous wave. The stairs and railways didn’t give it a moment’s pause. It flowed over and around them, detaching and reattaching bones to its central mass so fluidly it might as well have been a jet of water.
I watched it surge upwards and saw Lt. Mara’s troops start to react. It didn’t take an Aetherial spell to know that they were doomed though. The bone stealer out massed them ten-to-one and could move freely in the stairway. They, on the other hand, barely had room to dodge without falling into the empty shaft the stairs spiraled around. Worse, the stairs had been damaged by the beast’s earlier passage down them. It wasn’t going to take much damage before they fell apart and dropped us all a few hundred feet to a messy and painful end.
I glanced at Darius to see if Lt. Mara’s team had any aces they’d been holding back for an enemy like this. The tight fear that gripped his face confirmed what I’d guessed. They had grit, they had training and they had a ton of courage. What they didn’t have were weapons that were worth a damn against a creature like this.
Well, except for one.
Master Raychelle had entrusted them to me, because she thought I had the strength to protect them. It was true that since gaining access to my powers, I’d become stronger than I’d ever been, but I suspected that I projected an illusion of being more competent than I actually was. If so, I hoped that Master Raychelle hadn’t been taken in by it because in the dark pit of my gut I had the feeling that no one else was going to be able to stand against the monstrous centipede-like thing that was barreling up the shaft at us.
“You should start running now.” I told Darius and shoved him back up the stairs.
Then I leapt over the railing and plummeted down at the rising monster.
In retrospect, it wasn’t one of my best plans ever. To be fair though, I had less than three seconds to come up with it and “hit things” is kind of what I’ve trained myself to do for the majority of my life.
I’d expected to land on a solid mass of bone and be able to start inflicting damage from there. Somehow it hadn’t occurred to me that if the bone stealer could flow around the stairway like water, it’d be able to do the same to me.
It tried to grab me with a talon made of braided spines as I fell towards it. I responded by immolating myself in Void anima. The talon smashed into me and I felt the bone stealer’s raw power meet my own. My Physical anima saved me from the worst of the hit while the Void anima around me slurped down the magics that held the bone stealer together.
Usually that was a fairly deadly combination in a fight, but the bone stealer’s anima was as hard to effect as Master Raychelle had warned that it would be. I was able to draw the magics out of the bones that made direct contact with me, but not instantly. What was a bigger problem was that each of the stolen bones seemed to have its own store of anima. Draining one gave me a jolt of power but it didn’t slow down the rest of the creature.
With the physical power that I consumed, I felt echoes of the creature’s mind. Anger and a lust to destroy ran up my back and slammed into the base of my brain. That wasn’t going to be good for the bone stealer, but on some level I was aware that it wasn’t going to be good for me either. Not if I let it take control of me anyways.
Not that the bone stealer was eager to have me drain any more of its power either though. When it felt that I was stealing its magics away, it lashed out at me from every direction it could. It didn’t try to crush me, in fact it limited the contact it had with me to the fastest of slashes and thrusts that it could manage. Basically trying to inflict the most damage with the least opportunity for me to tear its anima away.
The attacks were bad enough, but the bone stealer’s reluctance to stay in contact with me had a more serious ramification. Without it trying to crush me, I didn’t have anything holding me up, and so I started falling once again. I tried to grab onto it, but the bones twirled away from me as fast as I reached for them.
I was distracted from the peril of my fall when I heard Lt. Mara bark an order and bolt caster blasts exploded in every direction around me. I got clipped by a few of them and between that and the sheer impact force of the bones flying around I was knocked head over heels and lost all track of direction for a split second.
The blasts didn’t destroy the bone stealer. They didn’t even slow it down much. They did redirect the monster’s attention though, which bought me the opportunity to grab hold of one of the thing’s ribs. I felt numerous stab wounds on my arms and legs in the wake of the blast as well as a nasty gash across my cheek. It hadn’t been the blasts that had damaged me though. The creatures attacks had been so fast that they’d gotten partially through my anima shield.
That’s where the power I’d stolen saved me.
I burned it off to heal myself as I swung to another of the bone stealer’s ribs. The first rib dropped away, drained of power, but I was already swinging my way to the next one down. Working like that, I managed to navigate my way through the bone stealer and leap onto the remains of the stairs on the far side of the stairwell. I’d fallen several floors in process, which put me below the monster and out of reach of the people above me. I felt my blood run cold at the thought that there was nothing standing between them and the conjured death beast.
“I’ve seen these things before.” Fari said, appearing beside me.
“When?” I asked her.
“When the makers of the Jewels of Endless Night forged me into the Ravager. These creatures, and others like them, were the kind of threat they intended to use me against.” she said. “Originally I was meant as a defensive weapon. A way to reclaim planets that had been overrun by out-of-control life forms like this.”
“Any ideas how to stop this one?” I asked as I started leaping up the stairs in pursuit of the bone stealer.
“In the past my answer would have been ‘unleash a planet scouring wave of death on them’.” she said.
“Not an option any more.” I said. The bone stealer had ripped the railing off the next flight of stairs and bent them downwards at a sharp angle. Instead of running on them, I burned a bit more of the energy I’d stolen and leapt the distance to the next intact section.
“And I’m still happy about that.” Fari said, flying along beside me. “Especially since I think there’s something I can do about this thing with the powers I have now.”
“I’m open to suggestions.” I said as I dodged a spear-like bone the monster had fired at me.
“I can sense the proto-mind that’s controlling this creature. It’s not intelligent, it’s just a collection of Mental anima with some pre-set rules.” Fari said.
“And this is a good thing right?” I asked. I vaulted over a crumbled railing and managed to catch up to the tail end of the bone stealer. I was running late though. The front end was already tearing into Lt. Mara’s squad.
“I think I can override those rules and take control of it. I’ll need you to touch my jewel to its main body though.” she said. I looked up at the swirling mass of bones above me in time to dodge another two bone spikes. Getting past the beast was not going to be easy. Getting inside it was going to be even worse.
Then Sergeant Bancryths fell over the railing from a floor above me.
He was too far away for me to reach out and grab so I did the only thing I could. I jumped back into the bone stealer’s clutches again. Unlike the first time however, I wasn’t able to sheath myself in Void anima for this leap. For as useful as the Void anima was in protecting me from the bone stealer’s attacks, it wasn’t going to do anything pleasant to the poor wounded Sergeant if I grabbed him and drained all of his anima out in the process.
I felt dozens of slashes and cuts tear into me as I flew through the maelstrom of moving bones. Most of them were deflected by the physical anima shield that I was able to call up. Some got through but not enough to stop me from reaching the falling Garjarack Sergeant. What prevented that was when the bone stealer caught him and spun a web of glittering silver anima around him.
I landed on the side of the stairwell that Lt. Mara and her team were on, but a floor underneath their position. That gave me a great view to watch as the rest of them were plucked off the stairs and wrapped in silver anima thread too.
“That’s not something they normally do. That’s not something they can do.” Fari said.
“Where’s its central body?” I yelled over the fighting screams of Lt. Mara’s squad.
“There!” Fari said, pointing at a round circle of compressed bone that hung above us on the same level as Lt. Mara’s team.
I leapt directly at the creature’s body, channeling my own physical anima into a short burst of strength so that I could soar upwards at it. The problem with leaping though is that you don’t have any leverage or maneuverability while you’re in the air. The bone stealer capitalized on that by smacking me with two of it’s hundred or so claws.
The blows sent me crashing back to the stairs I’d leapt from, which promptly gave way under my weight. I plummeted to the stairs on the level below and collapsed those as well. That process might have continued until I hit the ground level if there hadn’t been an undamaged rung in the wall that I was able to grab onto.
Lt. Mara’s squad was still fighting even as the bone stealer wrapped them up. Bolt casters and other anima spells were exploding furiously above me while I looked around to find a path back up to the fight before it was too late.
The last person the bone stealer grabbed was Darius. He’d run back far enough to have a good field of fire on the creature, but not far enough to be out of its range. I saw him slash the thread that was binding him. He’d switched his bolt caster to anima blade mode, but it wasn’t enough to keep up with the threads the creature was conjuring.
“Why isn’t it killing them?” Fari asked. “Bone stealers always kill their prey and extract the bones immediately. It’s why they’re so dangerous.”
“I don’t know, but whatever it’s doing is probably going to be a lot worse than death if we don’t stop it!” I said.
I looked around again, but came up short once more. There was no easy way back to the level the bone stealer was on. I let the anger I’d felt earlier flood down to my arms and channeled my physical anima to follow it. If there wasn’t a way back up to the creature, then I was going to have to make one.
With anima enhanced strength, I slammed my left fist into the stairwell’s wall. My punch sank my arm halfway to my elbow. I reach up higher and punched a handhold in with my right arm. As fast I could, I alternated my punches and climbed up the wall like an extremely destructive spider.
By the time I got to the top, the bone stealer had Lt. Mara, Sgt. Bancryths, Krysa and the others fully cocooned. It was finishing up Darius who had switched to breathing gouts of brilliant blue fire at the beast. I could feel the heat from across the stairwell, but neither the silver threads nor the bones that made up the creature were prone to combustion.
Sensing that I’d returned the bone stealer swiped at me with its claws again. I didn’t have the anima shield to protect me but what I had in its place was the speed and strength to catch the claw in mid-swing. The bone stealer reacted instinctively to that and tried to pull the claw free of my grasp. It couldn’t break my grip but it pulled with more force than I had weight so I came flying along for the ride.
I drained the claw after catching onto the arm that was holding Darius and the claw tumbled away. I was just reaching for the threads that bound Darius when the silver light that was playing along them went out like a candle.
The bone stealer had severed the thread itself.
In fact, it had severed both of the arms that had been holding Darius.
As we plummeted into the pit of the stairwell, I watched the bone stealer slither up to the door on the top level and pour through it. In one incredibly fast and fluid motion it took it’s captives through the door and slashed at the ceiling of the stairwell, sending tons of metal and stone raining down towards us.