The corpse of Dusty lay motionless in a bed of ash. His gold speckled coat of white, pristine as the day it was made, rejected the harsh environment. A storm of cinders blew across his body, but not a speck of flame remained. A battle raged on around him, gouts of molten rock colliding with walls of ice, hissing as they met. He remained untouched, among the vicious collision of hope and mutual destruction.
An arm, oozing lava, like saliva from a gaping maw, hit the ground not far from Dusty. A plume of ash shot into the air, sticking to the figures that dashed around it. A sword, covered in soot, shone bright, and bit swathes of rock from the arm, releasing a gout of magma onto the floor. It merged with the cracked landscape, filling in gaps and emanating a ghastly stench.
The arm, towering above Dusty, sent shadows rippling across the shimmering landscape. It thundered towards the earth, hammering into a pale yellow orb that surrounded a small group of humans. The arm, too heavy and huge to stop gravity, slid down the orb, releasing a sound like a fork on a plate, and window shattering, combined.
One of the humans stood under the shield, his hands held aloft, dropped to one knee. The pale energy projecting the dome were wisps in his hand, dancing. A line of blood ran from his nose, and the shield fell.
The arm, no longer hindered, hit the earth once more, obliterating the ground beneath it. Chunks of rock flew outward like a missile towards the grouped humans. Another shield flickered into life, weaker than the last. Three heaps of rock shattered against it, before the fourth broke through. The group scattered, some finding their way out of the travel path through sheer speed alone. Others opted to destroy the projectiles themselves. Beams of condensed ice shot out, a counter attack to the enormous monstrosity they fought.
Defeat was the only possible outcome one could imagine facing such a being, but they knew of no such word. Countless spells grew forth from robed individuals. An icicle twice the size of its caster. A bolt of lightning like a handheld storm. Mounds of rock were ripped free of their purchase by each of the attacks. Molten rock ebbed in to replace it, only to fall victim to a further attack.
Concentrated on these weaker areas, the goliath lost much of its mass. Constant defense against the endless onslaught only sealed its fate. More humans joined the fight, free from dodging or destroying projectiles to pour their efforts into felling the monster.
A focus on its legs brough the behemoth to its knees, hacking away at the rock below, like felling a tree. Eventually, its endless form was measured, found lacking in the face of such punishment. It’s molten husk toppled to the side, emitting a low groan that shook the ground, like rolling thunder.
Its body sundered the earth beneath it, shockwaves of sickening air rushing out to a kilometre distance before falling flat.
The group of humans sat by its side, breathing ragged breaths, ignoring the ash that filled their lungs. Surrounding them was a field of corpses, hundreds of comrades burnt to the flesh, or sliced in half. Despite their victory, there was no cheering, no joy. Even as the group felt filled with power from the slain creature, they remained motionless.
A female human, sitting on the outskirts or group, fell soundless to the side, her eyes devoid of life. Her wounds had long stopped regenerating, and a hole in her chest revealed her motionless heart, stained black.
[Congratulations. For defeating the Emperor Ashen Goliath, you have been rewarded 6,400,000,000 experience. Loot collection is
available, a new level in the shop has been unlocked. Happy spending!]
Pained eyes looked at the message that popped up in front of the group, drawing feelings of anger and despair.
A small group of humans remained, the rest obliterated. An arduous battle they had fought, now liberated from their earthly confines, and the chains of their Ysorian oppressors. All was void, hope dying with the ashen goliath. A change, some indication that it was all worth it, snuffed out, by a singular joyful message.
Their freedom was an illusion. A pale imitation to the relative peace that humanity found before Dos. Unaware of the beings roaming around outside their solar system, but ignorance was bliss.
The Ashen Goliath was a being so profound that it acted as a beacon of hope. A distant, and seemingly impossible goal, but a goal nonetheless. A failsafe meant for mutual destruction.
The humans now owned this land, a stinking, hot, shithole. Earth had been unconsciously terraformed by the Torian arrival. A slightly lesser evil, in the search for a home, but a shit decision nonetheless.
What little victory they had was shallow, nothing taken was worth a damn anymore.
One man stood up from the ground, displacing the burning embers that littered his body. He tapped on the message displayed before him, peering through the reward list. His mind sorted through the items, profiling them as useless or passable.
For slaying the Ashen Goliath, the rewards outstripped a chunk of their current gear. The man scrolled through the list, hoping that it was just a cruel joke. There has to be something! Tristen thought, his finger a blur as the list kept on scrolling.
When he reached the bottom, his fingers stopped, and the built up rage flooded from within him.
There was nothing. The items available no longer serving a purpose. They could have saved Earth and its inhabitants years ago, but it was too late. Closing the list without a choice, Tristen forced himself over to the smoldering corpse of the goliath and kicked one of the molten rocks.
It arced towards the destroyed volcano nearby. A plume of smoke arose from its location, and a bout of magma shot up, scattering across the unforgiving crimson rock. He shouted in anger and sorrow, falling to his knees as the hot air filled his lungs, making it hard to breathe.
His watery eyes opened to take in the fallen goliath, and the comrades slain around him.
Tristen held his breath, and looked back down at the corpses. Tears were wrenched from what little liquid remained in his body, evaporating upon contact with the outside. Tired of it all, Tristen glanced at the side on his hip and placed his hand on the hilt, feeling the familiar metal cooling his palm. Tristen went to draw it when something glimmering among the steam caught his attention.
Taking his hand from the hilt of his sword, he thrust it into the scalding steam, feeling the bracers around his arm melting and burning his flesh. When he pulled his arm back, a golden necklace sat in his palm, untouched by the hostile terrain around it.
Gold was a malleable material. It should have turned to liquid from such heat. Yet it was unscathed, cool to the touch and radiating power. A crimson gemstone, embedded in a golden medallion. Golden vines made up the chain that wrapped around the user's neck.
Inspecting the item using the Dos system, Tristen forced his aching legs to stand up and turn to show the group. As held the necklace up and waited for the description to pop up, the list of rewards for defeating the Goliath he had pushed to the side pulsed red.
[Anomaly detected. Loot collection withdrawn and shop level locked. Happy spending!]
Tristen glared at the sudden notification, validating it as true as he tapped on the loot collection tab, finding it empty.
Looking back at the necklace, he discovered the item was full of errors.
[N&@kl^%e o* T&M^
P%$s*ve: Able to recal- ---- --- ---- -- ----
Acti!#%: ERROR! (Years Invalid)
The item’s description boggled Tristen’s mind. In the years since Dos has infected and destroyed their lives, he had never seen a system error first hand. He had heard rumors, stories from others who had witnessed a system error. Dos purged some from the system, removing their pioneer status and mutating them into monsters.
Tristen’s hand shook as he clasped the metal. Those closest to him jammed the ‘Exit’ button on the loot screen when it appeared and noticed his shivering.
He held the necklace out towards a woman, beckoning her to look. She stood up and walked over, stepping through the puddles of magma without care.
When she inspected the necklace, she looked up at the man with a frown and sent out a message for everyone to gather.
The group gathered around, each inspecting the item and looking amongst themselves in shock.
"Years invalid?." Tristen whispered, looking at the crude metal. A respected healer in the group perked up when he read the description, his fingers dancing across the holo-screen until his eyes lit up. Turning the screen to show the rest of the party a screenshot.
[Necklace of Time]
Passive: Able to recall the time and date at will.
Active: Send a targeted party member 5/10/15 seconds back in time. Duration requires 500/1000/1500 Intelligence. Item destroyed on use.
When the Father of Time forced himself upon Lady Luck, she fought his advances, tearing his golden robe to shreds. Alas, even Lady Luck could not fight the tides of time, and the Father had his way. Her crimson tears turned to gems, and the golden strands of Father Time’s robe were used to create a necklace. A gift to those with Lady Luck’s favor to prevent the pain she once suffered.
The group looked around at each other and their screens, noting the insane intelligence cost required to go back. Those in the group who focused on intelligence, the magic and support users, eyed their own values.
“We only went back 5 seconds, but it was enough to save our lives.” The healer admitted. He pointed to the necklace in Tristen’s hand.
“That looks identical to the necklace I saw, and the text even matches up.”
Tristen tore his eyes from the screenshot to the necklace description. They matched each other in every field besides the errors. Plenty of items had duplicates, and even something as powerful as a necklace to reverse time was no exception.
“What does it mean about years invalid?” Tristen muttered, pouring over the necklace for any kind of clue. The woman who had gathered everyone squinted her eyes, glancing between the screenshot and necklace.
“Did the seconds turn to years?” She suggested. The group froze, staring at the necklace with reverence. Although there was no way to confirm it as truth, many hoped that it was the case.
“We can only go back 10 years,” A mage piped up, already knowing who among the living had the highest intelligence value, “That is, if it even is what we think it is.”
The group looked towards the one mage who met the criteria. His skin was pale and clasping tight on the staff in his grip, terrified of the responsibility that might fall upon him. Tristen bit his lip, noting the difference five years would make.
It was simply too late. A ten year reversal in time would place someone right in between the final dungeon evolution, and the invasion of Earth. They had no guarantee of keeping their current power level, and at that stage, no one could halt the Torian tide.
It might accomplish a better end than the one they met, with more humans surviving, but a pyrrhic victory at best.
"Can we purchase enough intelligence gear to reach 1500?" One mage asked, looking around at their dead comrade's belongings. Cynthia, the second-tank for the party, and the woman who Tristen had shown the necklace first, read the description repeatedly.
Some rushed to open their shop whilst others checked the rewards for killing the Goliath. Tristen cursed Dos for taking their rewards due to the corrupted item. They calculated how much intelligence they would need to gain to reach the 1500 goal. The mage with 1000 intelligence was equipped with gear that boosted intelligence by a fair margin already. To find pieces that provided more was difficult.
Cynthia looked around for a certain body as the party put their minds to work, arguing with each other on which piece was better in the largest display of emotion she had heard in a while. One body stood out amongst the rest of charred corpses, clear of any ash and still glowing an orange hue despite the lifeless eyes that stared up into space.
"What about Dusty's gear?"
The group stopped their talking and looked over at Cynthia who hovered above a body.
"Dustin…" The woman whispered. She felt the urge to cry, but no tears sprung forth, her body so deprived of hydration. Her hands were careful as she knelt down, inspecting the gear their once glorious leader had worn. The lack of ash or burns covering his attire was surprising, given the volcanic environment that surrounded them.
It was his coat that provided the benefit, steadfast in the battle to stay clean. She couldn't help the chuckle that rumbled up her throat. It was classic Dustin, refusing to work in dirty clothing. She counted up the intelligence they provided, then looked up at the mage who was most promising and shook her head.
The mage looked pained and relieved leaning against his staff.
"I… I don't think I could go back." He stated, drawing angry looks from the other mages. Despite feeling the same, they all knew that someone had to take the risk, hoping that it wouldn't be them.
“Even if I wanted to, there’s no guarantee that this thing will work. What if I get sent back 10 seconds? It won’t turn out any different.”
Cynthia wanted to scream at him, but there was no energy left in her body as she looked back down at Dustin's body.
She opened her mouth to speak but Tristen interrupted her as he read through the screenshot description again.
"It doesn't say they have to be living." He muttered, skirting around the truth behind his words.
All eyes went over to Cynthia, who looked down at Dustin. The highest intelligence of all the party members, living or dead, was nearing 2000 and belonged to none other than their leader who laid dead at her feet.
She wanted to say no, looking down at his peaceful face that was sleeping for eternity. How could any of them subject someone to relive the experience again, one who had already given their life to the cause, sacrificing more than anyone else?
"I think we should give it a shot," Tristen mumbled, looking around the group for support. The party nodded in unison, staring at Dustin’s corpse with bright eyes.
Tristen noticed her staring down at Dustin and he walked over, holding the necklace in both hands like it was a fragile baby.
Cynthia's eyes shot up, staring daggers at the approaching tank. He had taken hits from the Goliath and survived, encouraging his members to keep going.
But the look on her face gave him pause, stopping him from getting any closer.
"I know." She interrupted the man speaking and stood up. Without moving an inch the necklace disappeared from Tristen's hands, appearing around her neck instead.
Everyone froze in place as she ran a hand through Dustin's hair, her other hand clasping the necklace so tight they thought she might break it. She opened the broken description and activated the ability contained within.
A confirmation screen popped up in front of her.
|[Warning: Party members not targeted will die. Horrifically.]|
Cynthia looked at the warning like it was some kind of joke.
“You should all leave the party. Party members not targeted will die horrifically.” She mocked the last part of the warning. Billions of people died from Dos, but it was those that lived who experienced the real terror and hopelessness. A horrific death was expected.
Yet no one left the party, standing in solemn silence as Cynthia told her goodbyes.
"We go together," Tristen said, with the rest of the party copying his words. Cynthia didn't fight it and accepted the warning. The last confirmation screen popped up, full of errors.
|[Active: Targeted party member: Dusty. Target will be sent (15) ---------------------.]|
Her hand trembled over the accept button, looking once more at his peaceful face before she pressed it.
The necklace around her neck melted, being destroyed on use as part of its description. The molten silver slithered over to Dustin's body, encapsulating him.
Cynthia could feel an uncomfortable warmth and looked at her arm to realize that the skin was peeling off, revealing the muscles underneath. The pain was enough to make any sane person scream, but no one made a peep. They watched the body turning silver, praying to whatever sick gods had put them through this to let him succeed.
Rather than pain, their eyes were full of pity until they could see no longer, their eyeballs bursting from the intense heat.
Cynthia felt a single tear escape her burning eye ducts, dropping onto the silver and running down its side. Her hand continued to run through Dustin's hair until it no longer remained, turning to nothing. She leant forward with the last of her strength and kissed him on the lips, feeling what remained of her being torn apart.
The pain escalated until the party screamed, sending signals that even Dustin could receive. Once the silver finished covering his body, it dug into the skin, melding with the flesh and bone, rejuvenating the dying cells. When it reached his heart, it flowed over the still organ, washing the chamber in silver.
The liquid pulsed, slow at first, but growing in speed. Each pulse sent blood rocketing in and out of the heart, reanimating the internal processes.
Dustin heard the orchestra of horror outside as his brain came back online, still unable to open his eyes, and wondered if it was all a dream.
The sounds died out after a few seconds, leaving Dustin in silence as a voice echoed around his head, sending him back to sleep.
I love you.