The scene inside the ice zoomed out from Gabrielle’s face. She was wearing a black gown over a fabric woven from a mix of blue threads and tiny interlinked reddish-black circles, and in her right hand was a sword forged from similar metal. The gown covered the hilt down to the guard.
She giggled. The blade ignited with plasma-like crimson-white mana that shone like a dim fluorescent tube, giving her gown a maroon sheen. With her free gloveless hand, she pulled up her hood over her forehead. Gold trimmings weighed down the hood over her eyes, but Rowan knew she could still see.
This was a movie, perhaps another vision of times to come.
The scene further zoomed out. She was standing atop a plateau over a canyon in barren, cracked lands. Not a single cactus or shrub was in sight. The lands themselves had a look of sickness, gray and warped at places where rock formations twisted among each other.
There, across the plateau, someone else faced her. He wore an identical gown and held an identical blade imbued with crimson plasma. The scene zoomed in on him. Those lips were slightly chewed.
He was Rowan LeMort.
The scene zoomed back out far into the air at a low angle, widening inside the ice to encompass both Rowan and Gabrielle. And without warning, they dashed at each other, closed the distance in a fraction of a fraction of a second. Their blades clashed, then clashed again. And again.
The air atop the plateau shuddered with every parry. Impossible speed, they danced around each other, their blades and legs a flurry of action that Rowan’s low-level Swordman eyes could not follow, but it was more than clear who was husband and who was wife—and not just because one hooded figure was taller than the other.
Gabrielle’s fighting style was fast and acrobatic, reliant on rapid spins, jumps, and somersaulting cuts that made her look far more impressive, far more practiced, than her opponent. Her strikes were unending, her assault vicious to the point that it looked as though she were hellbent on killing him.
Was she trying to kill him?
Was this a future struggle for power?
Rowan could only guess from outside the ice. He could only admire his future self fend off his crazed lover with admirable style and grace.
Back straight, only one arm in use, his fighting form made him seem as though he weren’t trying at all, playing with her, mocking her overzealousness. A single flick of wrist his blocked a wide slash. A quick side-step effortlessly missed a lunge, and a simultaneous uppercut into a series of rapid slashes put her on the defense.
It was measured grace against chaotic ferocity.
And despite the difference in their fighting forms, they were perfectly matched. Every advantage one gained over the other was reversed a heartbeat later. Every strike was either dodged or parried. Most impressively, neither made a blunder; neither fell for subtle feints and obvious redirections of momentum.
The duel continued for the slowest minutes, and neither appeared to tire. Both only grew in speed and strength. The intensity was blinding, each clash of their blades flashing bright white. Cracks now spread across the rock. They were a blur of black and crimson across the plateau top, bouncing from one edge to the edge in mere seconds.
Then they started making use of Static Step, teleporting with scratchy graphical effects every ten seconds. And a ten second cooldown was long enough that the flow of battle wasn’t greatly altered, but the blink skill did work to Gabrielle’s advantage much more than Rowan’s. Her acrobatic techniques benefited far more.
Midway through a somersault, she disappeared and reappeared behind him, nearly catching him off guard. He dodged with his own Static Step. But she was already on him, and he could only now back-step into the corner with her cutting off his every attempt to roll away or leap.
She was on the brink of victory.
Then, as he was yards away from the edge, his blade flourished with a pattern reminiscent to a figure eight crossed with a clover leaf. He stabbed forward, a fencing move.
A wave of his Demonic mana blasted outward. She was sent flying backward, bouncing across the plateau like a stone skipping across still water.
He appeared before her. His blade was inches above her head. He did not strike.
It was finished, their blades dispersing of mana one after the other.
The scene zoomed in on them as she pushed to her feet. She unhooded herself, pouting. There was no audio, but her lips said it all: she was not happy with that last move. It had only been a practice fight, not a real duel or struggle. Meanwhile, he was smirking as usual at her plight.
I thought we were really having a scuffle there.
The scene faded to black, leaving only swirling mana in the ice. The vision did not replay no matter how much Rowan wanted it. At least this was all recorded; the red dot was blinking away at the top-right. Good enough. Gabrielle was going to love this.
An echoing, quiet voice said from behind, "Demons lesser than you have went mad where you stand."
Rowan spun around, muscles lashing. His gaze focused on a youngish Lunar Elf with kind of spiky white hair and yellow eyes. He was in plate armor. A greatsword was at his back. No helmet, oddly enough, maybe rendered invisible via enchantment.
? : Lunar Elf (Level 56)
So this was the elite boss. Level fucking fifty-six. How? But there didn’t appear anything special about those pointy ears.
Rowan’s chin lifted. "And you are?"
"Voron Cairen. Necromancer."
"A Necromancer with a sword?" Rowan could help but ask.
There was a pause. Voron’s head tilted. "Demons lesser than you have been much more knowledgable of the dark arts."
"I’m an adventurer. Do you know what that is?"
Surprise glimmered. "It has been… many centuries."
"You’ve been here the whole time?" That couldn’t be right.
"I am the guardian of this temple."
"Oh, I thought you were the cleaner." Rowan smirked.
Voron’s eyes narrowed after a long pause. "Amusing. Why have you come?"
There was more than one reason? Rowan considered his answer but found no hitch-up. "Loot and experience, obviously."
"You arrived through keystone?"
Rowan nodded slowly.
"That is unfortunate." Voron exhaled, head shaking. "For we are on a moon in my own pocket dimension. You are very far from Sortis."
That was… one of the last things Rowan had expected to hear. He was in space! Well, not technically in space. Still, he was an astronaut in this fantasy world! He saw no reason to believe this to be a lie; however…
"Why is this unfortunate?"
"You will likely not be able to return here."
"Why?" He frowned.
"As you said, you have come via keystone. The chances of you returning with another is not in your favor."
Rowan blinked. "Why would I wish to return?"
Voron smiled mischievously. "Your reason is your own."
Not a riddle. God damn. "Does it have something to do with this pillar of ice?"
"That would depend on your reasons."
"Does it show the future?"
"That is for you to decide."
The hell did that mean? Rowan kept cool with steady breaths. The ambient chill helped. "Why can’t I activate it again?"
"You can’t? That is strange. Unexpected."
Not the answer he was expecting by miles. "Did you see what I saw?"
"Your body was blocking the ice."
"What if I wasn’t blocking?"
"Mayhaps. Magic is a fickle beast."
A fist balled, Rowan growled, "Why are you being vague and difficult?" It clicked. "You’re trying to waste my time. You know I’m going to be ported out soon."
"My, my. You do have a working mind." Voron exhaled slowly. "Why have you really come here, Demon?"
"I told you. Loot and experience."
"Is that really why?"
"Yeah, why else?"
Voron’s sleek eyebrow arched. "Who was that woman in the duel? Was she your mate?"
So he did see. Rowan muttered, "Why do you care?" This was going nowhere. He would’ve attacked if the level different weren’t so great. How could this be appropriate for a level fifteen character?
"I do not. As you say, I am merely trying to waste your time."
Trolls everywhere—even in space. Rowan sifted through a few ideas to move this along, finding one decent. "What happens if I destroy this ice? Not saying I would."
Voron didn’t lose composure. "Why would you do such a thing? Did it not show you your future power?"
"So it does show the future?"
"I am disappointed." Voron sighed. "It is an instrument crafted by level sixty Diviners, which I am. It shows a mixture of your heart’s desire and a possible future."
Rowan tucked that tidbit away for later. "Why are you disappointed?"
"You have not asked the most obvious questions."
It took a few seconds. Rowan swallowed embarrassment. "Why have you not attacked me? What’s with all those fake doors?"
Voron smiled, presenting almost-glowing white teeth. "To answer both: I designed this temple to elude even the most astute. When activated in a specific order, the doors will take you to a room far below ground—"
Rowan scoffed, "I have to activate hundreds of doors in a specific order. You have to be kidding me."
"I said it is designed to elude even the most astute. You are far from worthy of such a title."
The insult bounced off without a dent. "I’ve destroyed a few. What now?"
Voron chuckled. "Nothing. The room is no longer accessible."
Shit. This was the trickiest shit ever. No way it could’ve been done in six hours. "What’s in that room?"
"The real elite boss of this dungeon. I am merely the designer."
Finally some sense. "And what does the elite boss drop?"
"Seven loot gems. And behind it, if you can solve the riddle, is a treasure valuable to Necromancers. Beneath that is a hidden passage which leads to a chest containing a valuable Enchantment Stone."
Rowan stretched his single arm and back. Bones clicked. "So I assume you’re telling me all this because I’ve failed the dungeon?" Both the elite boss and mini-boss remained, and two secrets were left unsolved. This room was one secret.
"Then what now?"
"How about some tea and biscuits?"
"I’m good." Rowan chuckled. "I have stuff to do back at home. Can you port me?"
"Unfortunately, I cannot. You will either have to slay the elite boss or wait for your keystone timer to lapse."
A groan was coming. "Fine. I’ll have some tea and biscuits."
"I was only… kidding." He smirked.
Fucking troll! "Then I’m out. It’s cold in here." Rowan walked for the reception area. "I killed all your weak undead, by the way."
Voron did not stop him, only watching with curious eyes.
And when Rowan was a few steps from the tunnel, he spun back around. "You said you designed this place. What’s the point? To lure raiders and adventurers like me?" Can I design dungeons too?
But Voron was gone.
Bellowing frustration, Rowan presented his only middle finger. "Yeah, piss off. Asshole. I bet you were talking shit about those doors too." But a gut feeling said every word had been truthful.
Seven hells. What a waste of time that had been. Gabrielle wasn’t going to happy, but at least he got in some sword practice and quality alone time. He was free of all the stresses and worries that had accumulated. His resolve was renewed. Time to go take care of those slaves again.