Chapter 22: A Pack Problem
Aldrich and his ever-growing entourage of undead traveled through the Variant forest. He knew generally how to get to Haven, but since he had no Eye-Phone, he had no access to a reliable map.
To compensate for this, he had the Evil Eye float in the air, above the tree line, to track their way through.
Every so often, Valera would detect danger with her [Defender's Vigil] passive, and whenever this happened, Aldrich would stand behind her shield and let the Evileye scout ahead with its permanent invisibility.
It did not phase through solid objects, but it could squeeze through most tight gaps, and it's omni-directional vision meant that it scoped out any threat quite easily.
For the most part, Aldrich just found more Strikers for they were the most common Variant in the forest. These were easily dispatched - Aldrich himself could handily beat one with just his physical stats alone.
In total, Aldrich had netted himself 5 kills and 50 EXP.
[EXP Bar: 25/250 ] 75/250]
Eventually, after about an hour of traveling, they happened upon a full pack of them.
A pack numbering up to ten Strikers with a significantly larger Alpha with them. The Alpha was marked by an angry red line of fur running down its forehead and up to its snout.
The Evileye spotted them while they were sleeping in a clearing by a small stream, though a few of them remained awake to keep watch.
*What shall we do, master* said Valera, speaking with Aldrich telepathically through their spiritually linked bond. *We could simply pass by them.*
*I know* Aldrich looked behind him. His skeleton archer, rogue, three Strikers, and Adam and Elaine stood ready for battle. *I want to scale my army up a little. Get rid of a Striker and replace it with an Alpha.*
*Might I ask why we do not replace the zombies* said Valera. *Objectively, they are the weakest among your army. I know you said they were your close friends, my master, but for your safety-*
*They stay with me. End of question about that* said Aldrich firmly. He wanted Adam and Elaine to stay with him until he got vengeance on Seth Solar and all of his crew.
Until they sunk their teeth into all of them and carved out a piece of vengeance they deserved, he would keep them by his side.
*Understood, master* said Valera. *I'm sorry-*
*Don't be sorry. You haven't done anything wrong - I was just making my position clear.* Aldrich took in a breath. *Alright, I've decided: let's fight them.*
Valera shuddered in anticipation for violence under her armor. *I am ever ready, my master.*
*Here's the strategy: the Skeleton Rogue cripples the alpha and then you charge in with the Strikers. I will stay at the edges of the clearing with Adam, Elaine, and the Skeleton Archer to provide cover* said Aldrich.
*Are you sure, my master From what I can sense, I can defeat all of these creatures by myself. After all, I am quite suited to mowing down masses of weaklings* said Valera. *That big one might take me a few more seconds than the rest, but they are no challenge. Unworthy to face you.*
*I'm sure of it. I need to test out whether the Rogue's invisibility is undetectable as well.*
*Understood* said Valera.
Aldrich watched from the Skeleton Rogue's 'eyes' as it snuck past the ring of sleeping Strikers with ease. Its black robes and cloak were covered in shadows that obscured it, completely rendering it invisible.
The skeleton's high agility was apparent in the way it could flip over the wolves and weave past them with such quick and coordinated movements, and in no time, it was right in front of the Alpha.
The Rogue took its curved daggers and sunk them right into the Alpha's eyes. The blades sunk in halfway, destroying the eyes but not reaching the brain before the Alpha remarkably reacted on pure autopilot.
Its brown fur raised up in prickles as an omni-directional force shockwave blasted outwards, knocking the Skeleton Rogue far back, crashing it into a tree.
All the Strikers woke up in an instant of alert, growling and ready to fight.
Aldrich's experiment on invisibility was somewhat of a success.
These were his observations:
Magical invisibility was troublesome to deal with, but not invincible. The Strikers could not pick up anything with their sharp sense of smell nor could they perceive the Rogue even when staring right at it.
Basically, it seemed that magical invisibility functioned by placing a 'shell' of obscurement around the user, enclosing any physical signs like scent, sound, and appearance from others. Thus, the sounds of their breathing, their heartbeat, or the clicking of bones was all hidden.
What did worry Aldrich was that movements made in invisibility still gave off hints when the user interacted with physical surfaces. Footsteps, for example, were still audible. And Aldrich noted that the Skeleton Rogue did make imprints in the dirt wherever it stepped.
However, the Skeleton Rogue had training as an assassin to mask the sound and noticeability of its movements, gracefully darting about only in firm patches of dirt on the tips of its bony toes so as to absolutely minimize any traces of itself.
The problem was that if Aldrich who had no such training tried to use invisibility, others could still track him with either the sound of his footsteps or any impressions he made on surfaces.
This was not an issue for the Evil Eye which was a spirit that made no sound in the first place, so for now, it seemed that the Evil Eye was completely undetectable. Functionally invincible unless it was caught up in some wide area of effect attack.
Whether Alter powers that could see through conventional invisibility or sense others worked against this invisibility remained to be seen, but Aldrich heavily suspected that they would not.
Most detection based Alter powers worked by sensing the unique energy signatures Alters gave off.
That would not work at all on magical invisibility.
"TO BATTLE!" shouted Valera as she charged in with her enormous shield. Her rousing cry generated all attention on her.
A Striker leaped up to bite her, and Valera took her shield and used it like a giant battering ram to swat the Striker away like a fly. The Striker flew like it was launched by a cannon into a tree and slammed against it with a crack, its spine shattered.
Another Striker bit her leg but could not penetrate her armor. She drove her shield down into the Striker's neck and decapitated the creature in one swift blow.
"Dirty mutts! You think you can challenge me with this! Let alone my master!" said Valera as she pounded her breastplate in challenge.
The Alpha Striker was blinded, but it tracked her through her obviously loud voice and charged towards her, snarling. It seemed to posses some level of muscle augmentation as its body swelled in size, its muscles rippling and engorging with blood until it was the size of a hovercar.
Valera put her shield ahead of her and blocked the Striker's charge. The loud clang of half a ton of solid muscle slamming against a brick wall of metal shield rang through the night. Valera moved backwards in the dirt about several inches as she dug in her greaves, resisting the Striker's powerful attack.
"Hahaha! Now that's more like it!" said Valera.
In the next instant, the remaining Strikers had all piled around her, snarling and clawing and biting at her armor. They did damage, to be sure, making impressions in the armor with their teeth, but nothing appreciable.
"Swarming me like the weaklings you are - just what I wanted!" said Valera. Her eyes glowed bloody red through the slits of her helmet. She let go of her shield and then loosed a heavy punch into the ground. A shockwave of crimson red blasted outwards from her, scattering the Strikers on her body every which way.
That was the skill [Bloody Strike] that infused her next attack with a shockwave of explosive blood.
The shockwave was strong enough that all the normal Strikers lay limp on the ground, their internal organs ruptured or bones shattered.
Only the Alpha striker managed to stand, driven back several meters before it regained balance.
Blood from the Strikers Valera had killed flowed from their bodies and around her, swirling in a thin barrier that formed a spherical shell around her.
"Yes, yes, YES!" she exclaimed as the blood not only flowed around her, but into her, seeping through the gaps in her armor as they healed her and fueled her [Blood Rage].
"Valera-," began Aldrich, not wanting to have her fall into madness.
"Oraa!" Valera heaved her shield back and then tossed it. The cross-shield spun like an enormously oversized shuriken towards the Alpha Striker. Because the Striker was blind, it was too late to dodge, and the giant shield slammed into it, driving it backwards and impaling it on a large tree.
Valera turned around to Aldrich and removed her helmet. She gave him a thumbs up and the warmest, brightest, happiest smile he had seen. At the very least, she was still sane, just high on the thrill of fighting.