He didn’t feel in any shape to climb the tree and pluck the last leaf—it had to be something truly formidable if the tree had been able to bear a continuous infusion of Xys’ venom for who knows how long. That even a single leaf clung to the tree was a miracle in and of itself.
Since the tree would have to wait for later, Chris checked his Status.
He’d gained two levels, and six stat points to allocate as a result. He put two each into Dexterity, Constitution, and Luck.
He’d also got a new title with some great benefits.
Area Guardian I: Be the Guardian of a rank [F] Area. +10 to all stats. +5% to all stats.
It was equivalent to his Genesis of Blood title, and had one of the extremely valuable percentage stat boosts that he’d only seen so far in the ‘first in cohort’ titles, and the ‘you are almost guaranteed to die trying to get this title’ titles like Surpasser. It also seemed to be a title that would normally be monster exclusive. Combined with the traits that monster had, like Monstrous Constitution, it was easy to see how the foremost among them could become truly formidable.
Xys had yanked him off the ground like a doll in a child’s arms, it must have required a significant Strength attribute. If all the monster titles were like this, Chris could see how something like that could be achieved, particularly with percentage boosts.
All the thinking of traits reminded him about his arm’s Assimilation ability. He shimmied over to the dead serpent and laid his hand across its side. The Slime pulsed with hunger and melted into one of snake’s wounds, devouring flesh with gleeful abandon. After absorbing the flower in the Dungeon it had slowly gained more of an appetite—that, or being severed and healed back had made it ravenous.
He really needed to come up with a name for it, he couldn’t just keep on thinking of it as ‘his arm’, or ‘the Slime’, or his ‘Slime arm’. As the Slime melted its way through a good portion of snake sashimi, Chris mused on what to call it.
Garthak Destroyer of Worlds was too ominous, Geralt of Rivia was trademarked, Rimuru Tempest was too on the nose and probably trademarked as well. Sid seemed like a good fit. Short for ‘Acid’, of course. It was short, pithy, awe-inspiring. It was also the name of the sloth in Ice Age who didn’t do much except eat flowers and look for food. Okay, so it wasn’t awe-inspiring, maybe awe-inspiring-ish. But it was perfect.
Sid gorged himself on the snake—he assumed Sid was male, he burped too much—before shrinking back into the form of an arm. Chris waited for the burp. Sid burped. There it was!
Chris’ first glimmerings of hunger had been satiated simultaneously and a lot of the weakness and fatigue he was feeling after thawing from Stone Form was fading—though that might have been weakness from the poison.
He selected his remaining reward: Dao Solidification.
He fell inward. Beyond his center. Beyond his soul. Memories and concepts whirled within him, like stars within a snowstorm. Three images warred against each other, luminous dancers in a blizzard of meaning.
They circled like stars on a collision course, each a microcosm of experience and understanding. The first was silence, no… no… Silence with a capital ‘ess’. He fell into its radiant depths to where the Silence roared and bellowed. A lack of sound that rose from deep within. A memory of the space between heartbeats, the abyss between each thought, and the punctuating hitch before the panicked breath as disquiet turned to dread.
It was Nathak, filled with the dead and their butcher. It was a black hole of noise. Timeless. Immortal. Hungry. A deadening. A sleeping titan of a soundless dread he could neither shake nor name. It was not Silence. Not truly. It was something deeper. A nameless, soundless sorrow, the voice of the crypt, the final scream of the void as its dark serenity was ripped apart by light and sound. It was the promise of its own return as heat died across the multiverse, a constellation of quiet sweeping across the black skies over which it would preside forever after. It was not Silence, but the name would have to do.
And it was not time. But it was patient. A yearning patience, serene and cold and cruel. It spat him out of its bright depths like thunder. It would wait.
Chris whirled as the second of the orbiting radiances slammed into him. It was different. Less hungry. But insistent. A beast of obligation that crushed him beneath its paw. The gavel-fall of each second of the clock, dictating that all mortals dance to its tune and march in line to its supremacy. It was a serpent’s venom that demanded resignation to its toxin’s course. Xys’ gift. A ball and chain to yoke and shackle its victim to the exaltation of abasement and obedience.
It was Subjugation. It had broken the mountains’ backs across its knee. What was a mortal’s will? Chris could not fight it; it was not Xys’ red venom. It was purer, a distillation of the venom’s intent, and more. It was an eroding insistence and an overwhelming expression of supremacy. And when it was done with him, it let him go from its surface, a chain tugging taut against his ankle.
The orbit of the third and last approached and Chris braced for impact. It never came. It spun him around its center and sent him elsewhere. Subjugation’s chain broke beneath its attention. He was cast off from all else, from concept and sense and thought. The System crumbled beneath its shadow as it had in the Dungeon. Chris faded as Isolation took its due.
And then he was floating within that swirl of concept and creation as the three fused before him, becoming something solid and complete, a crystallized manifestation of the three—degenerate in purity and perfection, but potent all the same. Three became one and their brilliance blinded him.
The light subdued and Chris no longer found himself in that strange storm of windblown meaning. Back in his soul, his center, his solidified Dao waited for him. Suppression sat before him like a mountain made of a hundred thousand pebbles.
He could feel the three core concepts behind it, the experiences that had made it. That of Nathak, of the Dungeon, of Xys’ venom. Suppression lacked the potent purity of each individual, but their coalition brought with it something else. Something intangible. Chris did not know what.
He stared at it, but it seemed dormant, awaiting usage. He backed out of his center, returning to the real world where night had almost set in. He’d been in the concept-space for longer than he expected.
However, there was no way that he’d gain something that felt so awesome and not try it out first.
He raised his hand before his face and summoned his Dao around his fingers. Mana drained from him and small motes of black danced around him like gypsy smoke.
He touched the darkened particles, but they slid off him like rain. Probably for the best; it was still unsatisfying though. He’d have to find something to test it out on later.
He took a few minutes to delve back into his center and clear mana away from his meridians—he didn’t want to go all suicidal psycho again on any and all threats that presented themselves.
Only after he was done did he realize that his arm—he supposed it was called Sid now—had helped itself to more of the snake lying beside it. Sid had broken through the serpent’s stomach—it seemed to have a fondness for internal organs—and Chris found himself face to face with a stinking heap of half-digested ropes of flesh pouring from out of the ruptured organ, surrounded by small, smooth scales like glitter. Yeesh!
He grimaced as the implication hit home. Those were snakes. Baby snakes. No wonder he hadn’t seen any of them around—despite increased spawn rates. Xys had been consuming its own children.
The smell was foul in the way that only cannibalized baby snakes stewed in stomach acid could be.
Chris retched, but his stomach was empty—he’d only physically eaten a sandwich and that was far earlier in the day. Small mercies.
He seemed to have recovered from the whole petrification ordeal, so he stood and walked over to the tree.
He’d deal with Xys later, try and find a Beast Soul Gem, maybe remove its skin and scale for future armor needs. But that could wait until he found the idea of Xys performing the Chronos maneuver less sickening.
A lone leaf fluttered in the breeze above his head.
It was time to see what made this tree so special.