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In this labyrinth of corridors, stairs, and the odd hall, Rowan had traversed downward hundreds of yards, doubled back every ten minutes when he’d stumbled into a mocking dead-end, and the ends were not even caved-in, seemingly purposefully built just to frustrate, and he sure was growing frustrated. He’d walked at least two miles worth of retracing.

He checked the time remaining—one hundred and sixty-three minutes.

Not good. The wooden board, gripped tighter, creaked between his fingers.

What kind of bloody dungeon layout is this?

Still three secrets remained alongside the mini-boss and elite boss. Basically no change in the past two hours; the density of undead mace and crossbow wielders remained constant—one every forty yards, more or less, plus a few in each hall. And he had battled through several halls now. None after the first had contained a loot cache or a mini boss.

A dungeon so barren really couldn’t be called as such.

There, at the corridor’s bend, an undead meandered into view, its ravaged face tinted blue in the light of nearby runes. Those milky eyes slowly drifted leftward. Its skinless arm rose, a chunky mace guarding an old laceration on the right side of its chest. It wore no mail or linen—a first.

Suddenly enraged, the undead dashed with a hunched back. Its bones were clicking, its muscles flexing with grotesque sounds. The smell of rot and other bodily fluids blew down the corridor. This one was by far the most decayed out of hundreds.

Rowan almost yawned.

He walked up as though greeting an old acquaintance, except the greeting was a narrow hellfire jet out of his index finger. Motes of dust tumbled out of the way as though frightened, and the Mana bar at the bottom-right dropped below thirty percent. He could feel the drain in his heart again.

The fatty undead did not react, did not slow in its mad rush, and ate the flames head-first between two rows of chipped yellow teeth. Everything below its eyes and above its collarbone were rendered away. The top half of its head carried on forward, leaving behind a headless corpse. Pocked kneecaps folded in submission.

A second jet vaporized that cranium before it splattered onto his face. He’d tasted enough undead gore for a lifetime.

The mace clanged harshly against the floor. The non-rusty mace. A mace of dull silvery-blue metal.

Mithril.

At last, some more loot!

Rowan was almost pleased, but unfortunately, mithril and light magic were like chocolate and caramel, a favorite metal of the Dwarves. Rumor had it that they’d scoured the entire planetary surface for the stuff and hid away vast reserves under their mountain bases.

And despite the over-used tropes, Rowan was more than curious to pay them a visit. What did their bases look like? Their food. Their traditions. Their loves and hates, passions and disgusts. And if they were also savages…

They’d also burn.

Perhaps he simply desired a justification to tread down a path of mass destruction, but this was his right, his fate. He—and Gabrielle—was the purifying force of the coming age. That was what the AI had intended. He alone had been selected for The Demonborn.

Why else? Why grant someone the power to erase matter from existence? Some things had to burn before new creations could take root. It was the natural cycle of life. Whether by flood, or earthquake, or asteroid, or fire, it was going to happen.

Rowan stepped down a left split and again almost bumped into a rusty-mace zombie. He was about to raise his hand to block, with the wooden board, realizing he had left it behind, stupidly. Like a dummy. Tendons ached as he hopped backward, missed a blow to the head by a good feet to spare.

This undead was missing its jaw entirely—and three of its front teeth. A left cheekbone and much of the scalp was exposed, an ear missing, its neck vertebrae protruding. It was somewhere between a zombie and a skeleton.

A skombie.

And on cue, its description window changed.

Undead Human, Skombie (Level 13)
Health: 46%

*Tip: You may assign special type-names to targets visible to you and your party. This system is smart, taking your naming intentions into account.

Rowan skim-read in half a heartbeat. Good tip.

And the skombie followed up with an upper-cut smash.

A swift practiced motion, Rowan drew Moonfyre and deflected using the flat of the blade. His feet shuffled, his stance transitioning into an improvised half Ox Guard and immediate circular cut. He could barely feel the resistance of old flesh.

An arm dropped to the floor. Then another, Rowan slashing sideways with a redirection of momentum in his arms.

The skombie went for a kick.

Rowan jumped back. "Thrustra." He lunged, both hands on Moonfyre’s hilt.

A hellfire lance eviscerated that ribcage and rotting remains of its heart and lungs.

Easy.

His sword-fighting was improving significantly, the weapon’s innate magic back-feeding into his mind during every bout. The blade was now like a natural extension of his hand to the point that he felt off without it, exposed and vulnerable—the way it was meant to be. The way of the Myrmidon. Zaine had been right on all counts.

He was tempted to leave behind the wooden board in his growing confidence. A distant wise voice in his mind reminded him: the line between confidence and arrogance is thick but very faint—a quote from a game he couldn’t recall. Perhaps a rogue-like RPG.

This dungeon certainly felt rogue-like.

Another four minutes wasted away in retrieving the board. That previous corpse had already underwent massive decomposition without necromantic magics preserving flesh and bone, falling apart at the liquifying tendons. The smell up close was bad enough that Rowan was forced to hold a breath, but even the odor particles in the air were rapidly decomposing. Ambient magics subtly fed new stale air into these halls.

He thanked the game designers for that; no one wanted to breathe shit for hours.

Down the left route once more, Rowan’s stomach grumbled. Hunger rustled him more than it should’ve. The last thing he had eaten was half a slice of Gabrielle’s cake. Why did she have to sneak bites? Naughty girl.

But he would not have her any differently. Hopefully she was safe without him.

Treading carefully through this darker hallway, he typed her a message.

Rowan LeMort (To Gabby LeMort): Yo, how’s it going at the base?

For thirty seconds her reply didn’t come. Not after sixty. Not after two minutes. Or three. Rowan off-handedly blasted an undead crossbowman with hellfire, staring at the chatbox with rising concern. A cold lump slithered down his throat.

He walked into a dead end, his nose bumping painfully. "Fuck," he growled, turning on his heel, eyes back on the chatbox. Her reply was still missing. She hadn’t ever ignored him like this. Something bad happened.

He tried again.

Rowan LeMort: If Skylar or Zaine made a move on you, I’m going to turn them into leather.

Her reply still didn’t come. Beep-less minutes passed like hours.

Then finally, when he was making his way down the right path, her message slid up.

Gabby LeMort: So sorry! Workin' hard and trying to cheer up Liluth.

That was all?

Fingers on facial pressure points, Rowan calmed himself with slow breathing through the nose. It could’ve been worse.

Rowan LeMort: Does Aewin want a Room?

Gabby LeMort: Yup.

The skin on his forehead became mountainous.

Rowan LeMort: Really?

Gabby LeMort: Yup.

She wasn’t saying something here—to keep him from worrying. Alright. He trusted her, so he didn’t dwell on whatever they were building in a hurry.

Then thump! His nose hit another dead end, hard. Warmth radiated from his mid-face, blood running onto his lips. He spat, hissing like a snake.

No.

His forked tongue wiped his lips, not happy about this either. This couldn’t be right!

No. I didn’t mess up.

He’d walked down every corridor, cleared every hall, slain every walking corpse. Every door had been magically sealed.

The thought smacked him like one of Gabrielle’s hot frying pans.

Every door had been left sealed.

Every door.

Doors lead to places. Especially locked ones.

"FUCK!" Rowan bellowed, pulling hair, doubling back down the corridor the nearest door at top speed.

His Stamina bar drained to seventy percent before he slid to stop. He drew directly from his racing heart, and unleashed a deluge of hellfire at the door, and the door’s magic amazingly resisted, refusing to be erased. He pushed harder, drew even more. His mana bar drained at triple the rate, the hellfire torrent blasting from his palms twice the size.

And like all things, the enchantments themselves burned and gave way. The abyssalnite melted, disintegrating into nothingness.

Rowan cut off the flow, his mana at sixty percent. The bright flames vanished. His eyes adjusted to the sudden darkness, and shock ripped through his gut.

Behind the door was only more rock.

He blasted again for a dozen seconds and a dozen more until he was a few yards deep.

His eyes adjusted to the sight of—

More rock.

A feeling of horror creeped up his sides, up his neck, tingling on his scalp. "What the hell is this?" he breathed.

His legs sprinted by themselves, bringing him to another door fifty yards down the corridor. His rune tattoos lit up once more. His palms unleashed hellfire, washed away the enchantments, then the door itself.

Only rock.

His body ran, his mind a daze.

Behind the next door was more rock.

He ran for hundreds of yards to the next. He unleashed hellfire.

More rock.

He jogged, his muscles begging for a reprieve.

Another door. More rock.

"What. The. Fuck," he huffed in between strained panting. He’d never seen anything like this before. He did not comprehend the point behind all these fake door. There had to be one—even if they were just for decoration. But the enchantments? Why?

"Why? Why?! WHY?!"

Did one of these fake doors lead somewhere?

Or were they magic doors? Like portals behind keys.

Or was it one big puzzle? A secret. It had to be.

But there wasn’t time to check them all—even if he had infinite Flow stat points. There simply wasn’t enough time left. Two hours and seventeen minutes.

Think, dammit. Think.

A maelstrom of thoughts, his mind churned on the precipe of madness, a flurry of rhetorical questions leading to no plausible answers. No particular door stood out among hundreds. No particular hall out of a dozen, but none of the halls had doors inside, he recalled with decent clarity—that was a clue. There were exactly eleven halls.

How many doors?

More than a hundred for sure. Perhaps two to three hundred. Eleven squared was one-twenty-one. Multiples of that were two-forty-two and—

No, that was fucking stupid.

The lit runes on the walls had to be clues, but he couldn’t read them with his current vocabulary. Was the dungeon gated behind Enchanter levels? It couldn’t be; the keystone assured a dungeon appropriate for his level. Including profession levels?

Too many variables were at play.

A thought struck—the rubble by the reception area. That likely was leading to something.

He ran with minimal drain on his Stamina, doors passing every dozen seconds. One door, two close together there, a trio of doors there. One. Two. One. Four. He did not decipher a pattern. Every door was the same down to the decorative floral carvings at the corners. What kind of goddamn troll designed this place?

Eventually, after what felt like days of jogging, he had managed to trace a route using the rotting corpses, nearing the entrance. Every muscle in his body was on fire, his airways seared, his lungs pretty much dead. Sweat drenched his back, the linen garb sticky.

But he went on, and when he was minutes away from collapsing, pieces of smashed desk laid before his worn sandals. Only torn leather and bits of metal remained of the first undead he had slain.

Almost shaped like a face, The rubble blocking the tunnel was taunting him to erase it from reality. He did so with pleasure, bathing it with his cleansing fires of hell. No enchantments resisted. He was through in seconds, a sub-zero wind blowing from the other side.

His feet walked on their own, his eyes transfixed on starry white-blue dots of light.

The frozen chamber was huge, a hemisphere at least a hundred yards in diameter. Beautiful crystal formations gave off twinkling light. Wisps of magic spiraled around them.

He nearly slipped on patches of ice, his feet taking him toward a jagged pillar of blackish ice at the center.

Navy-black mana swirled in the ice, and the ice was polished, reflective like a mirror. He saw his own face, slightly bloody under the nose and at the left cheek. His crimson cat eyes widened horizontally.

Inside the ice his wife Gabrielle was smiling in perfect clarity.

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greentleevis

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