“It’s following us—and it’s alone.”
Val didn’t even try to stop the predatory grin from spreading across his face.
It’s time. Finally, it’s time.
“Keep track of it. Let me know if it moves,” he said to Rain. He opened his full interface, the runes of light swirling around him and temporarily blinding him, though they shed no light into the darkness of the tunnel.
One last time, he checked to make sure he was ready. The glyphs swirled, showing him the totality of his being. Within the loops and twirls of one large symbol were his name, level, and stats. A grouping of smaller glyphs showed his skills, the symbol for each containing within it the encoded details of its function.
Each of the skill glyphs was a unique masterpiece, but in one way, they were all the same. Where others saw text and numbers, Val saw the truth. The six symbols shone with pure white light. He examined each of them in turn, turning the glyphs in his mind to take in their full splendor.
Beloved of the Sun
These were his skills. His only skills. These six out of a pool of thousands upon thousands. They were special. They were unique. These were the only six skills in the world to shine with that pure, white light. He’d spent years searching for them, then years more mastering them. The light spoke the promise of power. Where the glyph of Firebolt burned with a crimson, chaotic intensity, Solar Ray was pure, unwavering. Where the azure symbol of Arcane Bulwark twinkled with the promise of untold mysteries, Hard Light was blinding in its solidity. He’d forgone even the Intrinsic skills that were the staples of every mage, trusting to the strength of the enchantments woven into the fabric of his father’s dueling jacket.
He closed his eyes and thanked his father once more for hiding the garment for him to prevent the Empire from taking it. Even now, the powerful enchantments pressed on his mind, at the very limit of what his soul could bear. The strain had been intolerable at first, a constant, unwavering force that pressed down on every fiber of his being. Now, after so many years, the pressure was still there, just as strong as it had been on the first day he had donned the jacket. However, he now felt the pressure as the loving arms of his father, taken from him by the Empire when he was but a boy. He’d miss the feeling when it was gone.
The symbols swirled as he focused, and a new set appeared before him. Some were dark, only a possibility of what could be, but others shone with a unique light of their own.
Worker was dull and brown, like earth. Mage swirled with many colors, though each was muted. Light Mage was a bright white glow, but it wasn’t perfect. It wasn’t pure. It only required four of the six. It wasn’t why he had waited all this time. No, he was waiting for something else. Something stronger.
He knew it was there, though no glyph formed before him. He knew it was there because of his father. Because of what he could do. There was just one last piece. One last requirement.
Val exhaled slowly, closing his eyes and letting the glyphs fade away.
“Hey, are you ok?” someone asked. The words flowed past him, nothing but wind.
“I’m going. Do not follow me. Even if I die, my body better be cold before you come down that tunnel.”
“Hey, wait… Just be careful, ok?”
Rain’s message struck a chord in his heart. He looked back and smiled as he saw the anxious face of what had to be strangest person he had ever met. “Thank you. For saving me, and for putting up with my shit. I know I can be difficult. The time for caution is past. If I die, I want you to know that I’m grateful for everything.”
Silence reigned for a few seconds, then was shattered as Carten broke out into a laugh.
“Well, now yer fucked! Sayin’ a line like that… The universe is gonna’ kill yer ass outta’ principle.”
Val walked silently through total darkness. He wasn’t going to risk the light of his orb giving the creature any warning. As he walked, he listened for any sign that it was near. The stone of the tunnel was rough on his fingers as he traced them along it to guide himself. He’d almost given up and summoned his light when he heard it. The angry trilling cry was his only warning that he’d been spotted.
Without thought, he dropped into a crouch and summoned a Hard Light barrier with his right hand, placing it in front of his face. The Darkmonk slammed into it, its tiny serrated fangs sending cracks spidering across the barrier as they sought his flesh.
I’ve got you now. You should have run.
He summoned his Lunar Orb, revealing the Darkmonk with its pale glow. It hissed in outrage and shrank back from the light. It was about the same size as a Dark Hound, but where the hounds were twisted parodies of the creatures for which they were named, the Darkmonk was sinuous and predatory. It looked like a massive ermine, but its fur was raven black. Even its teeth were black, currently bared in a vicious snarl of rage.
It lunged for him again and he blocked with the shield, swinging it across his body and shunting the creature’s momentum to the side. He brought up his other hand and blasted it with Solar Ray at point blank range. His shield shattered, the duration having expired. The creature shrieked in outrage, though the actual damage to its health was minimal judging by the red glyph hanging above its head. He hadn’t had time to refine the beam with Luminous Concentration, so the effect wasn’t as focused as it could have been. That was okay, he just needed a little distance.
Val backpedaled, leaving his Lunar Orb hovering over the beast as he focused on his left hand. He started casting Solar Ray once more, but this time he spent the extra few seconds required to build the matrix for focusing the beam. When the spell struck the creature, a note of pain was mixed into its cry to join the rage that was already there. It lunged for him again, and he barely managed to raise a shield in time.
This time, the creature didn’t bite into the shield. Instead, it flipped itself around in midair and kicked off of it, sending itself up towards the ceiling. It flipped again, rebounding off the ceiling and down to the floor. It then scrabbled under the shield and slashed at Val’s ankles with its claws.
Val screamed as the razor-sharp claws sliced straight through the leather of his boots and left bloody tracks in his skin. He brought the edge of the shield down toward the creature’s back, but it had already darted away before the razor sharp edge could slice into it. He quickly fired another shot, but whether it dodged or he missed, the effect was the same. It kicked off and lunged for his face again. He managed to get the shield back up in time, but only just.
The Darkmonk attempted to flip off of the shield again, but this time, Val was ready for it. He already had a Solar Ray concentrated in his other hand, which he fired through the shield straight into the monster when it made contact. The largest downside of Hard Light was also one of its strengths: light magic went straight through. The beam tore into the Darkmonk and it shrieked in surprise as it flew away through the air.
The shield shattered as the Darkmonk hit the ground. It was only down about a third of its health despite the direct hits it had sustained. Val checked his own mana and grimaced.
This is going to be close. Hard Light is too expensive.
He kept backing up, gritting his teeth at the pain from his ankles. He raised both hands and started blasting, abandoning defense, alternating hands to keep up the rate of fire while still spending the necessary time to refine the beams. If he could keep it on the defensive, he’d be able to kill it before he ran out. Just barely.
The Darkmonk howled as beam after beam struck its body, but it didn’t stop. Its beady eyes were latched on to him, filled with rage. It ducked and weaved as it dodged toward him, racing along the floor of the tunnel.
“Die!” Val screamed as it leapt for his face. He fired a desperate shot straight into its chest as it flew through the air. He only had mana for one or two more Solar Rays, and not nearly enough for a barrier. He raised his left arm to protect his face. The Darkmonk latched on to it, its teeth tearing into the fabric of his jacket. The enchantments resisted, but the cloth was meant to protect from magical assault, not physical. He screamed as the teeth sank into his forearm. He started focusing all of his mana into his right fist, charging Solar Ray with the power of the Last Light.
The creature went berserk. It gnawed on his arm and raked at his body with all four of its clawed feet, shredding cloth and flesh alike. The glyph showing Val’s health started to dim at an alarming pace, and the bloody furrows the creature was leaving all across him were burning like fire. The creature itself was almost dead, but its ferocity had only increased with its desperation.
Suddenly, Val recognized the feeling of mana flowing into him in a torrent. He didn’t question it, he just forced all of it into his building spell. He pressed the two fingers of his right hand against the creature’s forehead.
Then he fired.