I don't have that much time to recover before Granin returns to my cell. I suppose I should count myself lucky that he didn't walk in whilst I was mutating, that would have been embarrassing. I'm tempted to ask him about it actually, something I really should have asked the Sophos when I had the chance. My pets don't seem to have any issues when they mutate, and my siblings in the colony don't seem to either. Is this something that only reincarnated Earthlings suffer from? Next time I speak to Jim and Sarah I should ask. I'd rather not ask Granin and have him make fun of me or something.
When he arrives, I can tell something isn't right. His craggy face is even more miserable than usual and he wastes no time in climbing down to meet me.
[Hey Granin, you look like you were carved out of granite. Something go wrong?]
[You're not funny.]
[You have no sense of humour, how would you know?]
Granin sighs and throws himself down onto the only suitable chair in my cell. His stone body thuds down with significant weight and he raises a hand scrape across his brow. This doesn't look good.
[That bad?] I ask, feeling trepidatious.
[It's not great,] he admits, [They're still looking to set you up with unfavourable matchups. After stuffing up the first round, it appears they've become determined to correct the mistake.]
[What have we got? Some brutal physical specimen? Ready to crush me beneath its iron heels?]
[Worse. This time they've gone after your strength. They tried dumb force last time, this round they've gone with a highly intelligent magic using monster. Difference being that its raw stats and Skills are far above yours. You'll have no magical advantage in this one, in fact, you'll be at a massive deficit.]
That doesn't sound good. I've invested a lot in my magic. If this monster is a tier higher than me and even more invested in it, then that's going to neutralise my greatest strength. Does this mean that I need to rely on my physical ability to carry me through? I may have to.
[The other thing I need to tell you is that your opponent is a demon.]
[Like from hell? What does that mean? Pitchforks? Will I get pronged?]
Demons? What the heck does he mean by demons?! Have they opened the gate on mars and sprung forth beasts from the very depths of the infernal plane just to roast an ant?! What am I supposed to do?! Where's DOOM guy?!
[No. What's hell? And pitchforks? Aren't those for farmers? Shut up for a minute. Demons are what we call the monsters native to the Third Strata. It's a place of nightmares, ash and fire, in that order. The creatures there attack the mental and emotional weakness that all mortals possess to try and demoralise us and make us weak. They are powerful, tricky and have a distinct strata advantage over you.]
I'm not sure I've heard him use that terminology before.
[What do you mean by that?]
[You know how the Shadow monsters, like that pet you don't remember, are made of shadow flesh? Since it's a substance that requires more dense mana to create, the monsters of the first strata don't have access to such a thing when they're made. In our trade we would consider shadow monsters to have a strata advantage over monsters of the first layer, they have access to body parts and materials that are better.]
[So the same thing goes for the demons of the Third Strata, right? They've got stuff that requires an even higher mana density to spawn. Stuff that I can't even see in the menu?]
[Right,] Granin says heavily. [It's going to be hard to overcome the gap. I firmly believe that you have a shot, but I'm not going to say it'll be easy. We only have a few hours before the fight starts. We need to do all the work we can on your magical defences between now and then. If we can squeeze out even one Skill level up, it'll be worth it.]
For the next few hours Granin continuously shaped mana in the air whilst I tear it apart using external mana manipulation. Desperate to make gains I use all of my brains for the task, reaching out and taking hold of the mana outside my body before trying to unravel it. It's gruelling work, but we're successful in gaining another level before my 'escorts' come to take me out to the next match.
My ant heart begins to pound in my chest as I take the now familiar march down the long tunnel, around the bends and past those many other locked cells that house my competition. It doesn't take long to reach the gate before the combat area, the three shapers behind me watching my every move. With a slow rattle the gate opens and I force myself to walk through into the relatively open air and wide space on the other side. Interesting, it appears as if they've repaired all the damage to the outer wall between the rounds. The work was way too complete to have been done by hand. Earth magic? Stone magic? Combination of the two? Some of the obstructions have also made a return, rocky obtrusions that burst upward from the sandy floor. I can see the Shapers watching from the viewing stands, their mutterings barely audible at this range.
Perhaps most importantly I can see my adversary, already present at the other side of the area.
My first thought is that it's a bat. Two leathery wings extend from its body and flap lazily to keep it mid-air. My second thought is that it's small. Really small. The body of the thing is probably only as large as a watermelon, the two wings stretching out to either side of it. My third thought is: 'that is a freaky looking eyeball.'
The 'body' of the creature appears to be little more than a giant, swollen eyeball, rimmed in dark red flesh that is absurdly bright. The flesh doesn't really capture my attention though, since the eye itself is far more striking. It's luridly, sickeningly, mind-bendingly green. To complete the picture, the last thing that comes to my attention are the two thin, dangling arms that drop down from just beneath where the wings connect to the body/eye.
All of my senses tune to their fullest. I'm tense, I'm ready. Even so I almost miss the thread of mind mana that slithers toward me from the monster opposite. I don't even have time to take it apart before it connects and I brace myself for an onslaught. Instead, I hear a low, sibilant voice echo in my mind.
[I see you.]
Well yeah? When I reply, I can't help but lower my voice and mentally 'whisper' back.
[Of course you can. You're basically just an eyeball with wings.]
[I see your family. I see your siblings. The warmth. The support. I see how nice it issssss.]
I'm just confused at this point.
[Yes. It's nice. How do you see that anyway?]
The green eye blazes brighter and the voice suddenly booms in my mind.
[I WANT IT. I WILL TAKE IT ALL!]