The group advanced steadily, and now that the two knew what to expect, Brynn and Balthazar were an effective guard against the searing bolts of light. Held before her, Brynn's shield had a way of ricocheting bolts off and through the trees. Not into them, mind; where Balthazar and Vira could do little to no damage to the bark, these bolts carved straight through and disappeared on exit. As for the aforementioned towering Lupe, Balthazar's hide had to have been stronger than plate armor. The bolts exploded against him, but left only small singed places on his fur. Agent turned to Vira, hoping she could explain.
A look was all Vira needed to get talking. "Yeah," she began simply, "All the zaps from Faeries has made Balthy more and more resistant to spells like that." The mutated Acara smirked. "As a matter of fact, even my daggers aren't able to cut it." She got a good chuckle fit out of that lame little joke of hers. Agent decided to divert her attention to the rest of the group. A hand on Brynn's shoulder, Hanso was watching ahead with an unusually serious look upon his face; it seemed the gesture was to give both he and Brynn strength. As for Kayla, she had her wand in one hand and an ominous flask of simmering, pale blue liquid in the other. Face set, it was plain to see that she was ready for a fight. When the Zafara Double Agent noticed Vira ready, with her dagger in one hand and three or four Battle Bats in the other, it became apparent to her that everyone was prepared for combat but her.
So, retrieving her jack knife from where she'd hidden it up the other, undamaged side of her skirt, Agent steeled herself for whatever lay in wait. Indeed, it was a very short walk further before reaching a clearing, ringed by a grand total of ten pathways. Ahead of them, some kind of bizarre, twisted black pedestal had risen out of the ground. Just as the group realized it to be made of several upturned, twisted roots, their eyes were drawn to the object floating above it. The rhomboid artifact had eight triangular sides, and its brilliant, sky blue surface was covered in those familiar circuit-like designs that zipped and surged with power. It floated a good meter above the top of the pedestal; meanwhile, out to about four-fifths that distance extended an aura of snapping, crackling, whitish-blue light. No one was really sure how to go about grabbing the thing, and they didn't have time to ponder their options.
All around them, screeches and howls went up. Black, twisted creatures emerged from the other pathways encircling the clearing, murderous red eyes aglow with bloodlust. Some were low to the ground, and had a disturbing resemblance to Aishas, Kougras, Lupes and more; some glided like Korbats, some swung on the arching branches like Myncis, some slithered like Hissis. It didn't take too much thought to realize that these were all mockeries of 'Pets who had likely gathered around the artifact to try and return to normal. Yet even this was put to doubtful thought as the artifact's light fell on them: the 'flesh' of these creatures bore an uncanny resemblance to gnarled tree roots, and their teeth and claws looked more like very long, curved thorns.
If the group was confused before, the voice that rang out absolutely stunned them. "You Come To Make Use Of My Power," a gentle, though greatly amplified male voice said. "I Can Only Permit This If You Are Worthy. Only Those Of Great Might And Fortitude May Hold My Power In Their Hands, And Only Those Who Would Use This Power For The Sake Of Others May Keep Ahold Of It." Each of the group felt a tugging at their minds. "Head of Fyora's Guard, Brynneth. Master Thief, Hanso. Meridell's Alchemist, Kayla. Lady Adelaide von Greizbern. Vira. Balthazar. What Is It You Desire? What Do You Want More Than Anything In The Whole Of Creation? Is It For Selfish Greed? Is It For Selfless Kindness? Do Battle With My Guards, So That I May Know Your Hearts. En Garde!" With that, the creatures sprung forward.
The group moved apart, and prepared to do battle. With Hanso distracting their numbers, the bite of Brynn's sword easily felled them. Close together, Vira and Balthazar were a deadly team. Meaty, furry fists bashing in the enemies' wooden faces, Balthazar sent a beast flying with each strike. Meanwhile, Vira's Dagger and Battle Bats were violently driving a pair of the beasts back, and she herself was alternating between Frost and Scorch to defeat others. When one tried to spring upon her, Vira lunged forward, twisting so that she was inverted with her legs around its neck. Using her wings to spin upright, she launched the Scorchio-like monster into the ground where its body cracked and splintered. With a shout of "Courtesy of the Haunted Woods, bitch!" Vira flit off to do battle elsewhere.
At the same time, Kayla was using her wand and potion together to attack the creatures. With the wand, she would guide a globule of liquid out, and launch it into the midst of the beasts. Upon impact with anything solid, a conflagration would go up and immolate the beasts. Like this, Kayla had felled at least a dozen monsters. Seeing a lull in their approach, the red Zafara turned to look at the Double Agent. There had been one name in the Artifact's role-call that she didn't recognize; could this "Lady Adelaide Greizbern" really be...?
There, she spotted Agent in combat. She had only taken down two monsters, but those two were covered in deep slashes, and clearly weren't getting up. Now, the faded blue Zafara was locked in combat with what looked like a Skeith. Kayla could now see why Agent had put a rip in her skirt, before: she was a blur of motion, her feet lost in a constant cloud of dust. It was like a gale had been kicked up around her, and only the flash of her jack knife could give any watching eye a way to follow her strikes.
As the Skeith crumpled, it was apparent to Kayla that were the Double Agent not so diligent about felling her enemies, she'd likely have a body count to match (or surpass!) her own. Yet seeing that she'd missed a Hissi lunging from above, Kayla sent an explosive spell right into the creature's eye. As its head went to pieces and the creature fell, Agent sent a small smile Kayla's way. Then, with a rapid movement, the faded blue Zafara sent a slashing shockwave right past her. The Kougra trying to flank Kayla was bisected easily.
In what felt like an hour, but couldn't have been more than ten minutes, the group had all of their foes defeated. The artifact's glow softened, as it floated lower. Its voice said warmly, "You All Have Done So, So Well. I'm Glad It Was You That Found Me." It floated over to land in Agent's hand; her jack knife long since sheathed and placed back on a holster under her skirt."As You Already Know," the artifact continued,"The Orb Was Able To Sow Life And Prosperity; I Can Alter Life, From Plants To Petpets, Generally Making Them Into Warriors; And The Cube Concentrates Magic, For More Purposes Than You Are Aware Of. I Can Only Tell You The Last Two Artifacts' Names: The Ring, And The Pyramid." The group felt themselves comforted by the Artifact's words, somehow.
It grew warmer in the hands of the Zafara Double Agent, and warned softly, "Beware. A Group Of Fiends Has Gathered Outside. I Can Seal My Power From Them, But Their Master Can Easily Undo That Seal." The circuits of the artifact turned into a stormy gray, and as Agent ran her narrow fingers along them, she felt a seamless, flat surface. "I Know You All Can Win," said the Artifact encouragingly, "For You Have More Allies Than You Can Know. However, You Can Keep No Secrets From Each Other, If You Wish To Succeed." The faded blue Zafara who held the Artifact knew who that statement was pointed at.
As she turned, the entire group was looking at her. They were mostly confused, but Kayla looked positively thrilled. "The von Greizbern Family," she breathed, "Brought their knowledge of alchemy and magic to Meridell, after a failed campaign to set up trade with the peoples of the Lost Desert." The young red Zafara's eyes were almost aglow. "They were known for their personal magic, the Light-Element Armor Alchemy. They could take everything from water to fire to oxygen in the air, and make it into 'a raiment that was shield and sword in one'." Kayla looked fit to burst, by now. "Are you really of that von Greizbern Family, ma'am?"
With a sigh, the Zafara Double Agent gazed down at the Artifact. It seemed to give her the courage to respond. "Yes," she said so, so quietly, "That was my family. I am Adelaide von Greizbern, daughter and eldest child of Lord Aldebrand von Greizbern and Lady Chastity von Greizbern. Unfortunately, I am the last. In the months before the First War of Darigan and Meridell, assassins had claimed my uncles, aunts, and cousins. Only the central pillar of our family - My parents and their children - Were left by war's start.
"My father and mother," the faded blue Zafara continued in an even tone, "Went to war for our sakes. Together, they felled eight platoons of Darigan soldiers, before their wounds were too much to carry on fighting against the sheer numbers." Fur on her cheeks growing wet, she said finally, "It was a Darigan spy who found myself and my five siblings, locked in my room. I will never forget, he was a Techo whose movements were totally silent, and whose eyes were a horrible red. But when he spoke, he was an absolute gentleman, and never talked down to any of us. He led us to Illusen's Glade, and swore on his honor that he'd bring any other civillians he found to her." Brushing away a tear with one fingertip, Adelaide still was a figure of serenity.
She finished by saying, "I spent years perfecting my Alchemy Armor, and did odd jobs so as to pay for my siblings' tuition in Brightvale. Once my youngest sister's education was secure, I made a journey to the Citadel. I was able to find the spy who had saved me: aging as he was, he was a picture of health. It was surprisingly easy to convince him to teach me the arts of espionage, and I remember...My last mission under his guidance was to return to Meridell, alone, and blend back into their society. That man, Zeref, died earlier this year, at 73. I am so, so thankful for all he taught me, and that he could live to see my self-imposed mission to illude Kass's attempts to gather Meridell's tactics." At that, she fell silent. Running a thumb back and forth over the Artifact's surface, Adelaide kept her head down.
For a long, long while, no one spoke. Oddly enough, it was Hanso who stepped forward. As awkward as his attempt at consolation was, Hanso said, "I've not known many folks outside my family, the Thieves' Guild, and Brynn all my life, but I've seen how dangerous it is for your name to get out, sometimes. Seeing as how you've also got your siblings to worry about, you can believe me when I say: I'll protect your identity with my life, milady." He gave a bow that would normally have a crass air, but now, was quite respectful. Adelaide looked around.
The rest of the group smiled, and nodded in agreement. It was plain for her to see that she had found an odd, but trustworthy assortment of friends. With her own soft smile, pale blue eyes growing wet with tears, the hooded Zafara choked out her thanks.
But soon, the group heard distant cries. There was still much work to do.