Micah clutched his spear, squinting into the mist that spread out before him, unable to make out anything but vague and diffuse white light. Behind him, the door closed of its own accord. With a portentous click it promptly began fading out of existence. He frowned slightly, but didn’t otherwise visibly react as his only escape route disappeared.
“Congratulations champion,” a genderless voice stated without any noticeable expression. “By raiding a dungeon above your level without the assistance of another sapient blessed multiple times, you have been selected for an additional challenge. Your patron, Mursa, has taken note of your bravery and selected a suitable reward.”
“But first,” the voice continued, cutting off Micah’s burgeoning sense of elation, “you must prove yourself worthy of the Goddess’ attention and reward. Rather than the dungeon boss, you will be fighting a challenge personally selected for you by the Goddess. Defeat it and grow.”
“Do I get a choice in the matter?” Micah asked, glancing around the mist filled expanse looking for the source of the voice.
“You already chose,” it replied emotionlessly. “You made your decision when you embraced your curiosity and entered this place. Now prepare yourself. It approaches.”
“It approaches,” Micah mimicked, his voice a singsong lilt as he gripped his spear staring into the empty mist. “Very helpful.”
A heavy footstep echoed throughout the desolate space. Somewhere nearby, a large animal snorted. Micah tightened his hold on the spear.
Wind blew across the expanse, carrying away the mist. Micah swore under his breath. He was in a grand arena, almost as large as the central market in Basil’s Cove. The walls seemed to be carved from one mammoth slab of grey granite, seamless and impossible to climb along the entirety of the boundary. Above the barrier, mist still hung heavy over the arena’s stands, concealing great and illogical shapes that moved occasionally, half- seen. Micah’s mind rebelled as he tried to make out what lay in them, his thoughts refusing to dwell on the tantalizing and alien silhouettes.
More pressingly, at the other end of the arena stood a gigantic red lizard. Frankly, it looked like one the dragons from Keeper Ansom’s records and legends except for its lack of wings. It was just taller than Micah at its shoulder, but its torso was the size of a house without even including its head or tail. Those almost doubled its already colossal length.
Its tail, a long sinuous affair covered in densely packed burgundy scales, ended in a forearm length blade of sharpened ivory. The beast flicked it from side to side with a speed and agility that brought sweat to the back of Micah’s neck. If the monster got close enough to use it, that blade would be almost impossible to avoid.
The creature’s head, an ugly mix of jaws and bone spikes, sat at the end of a long curving neck as it stared down at Micah with the reptilian eyes of a predator. The entire arena shook slightly as one of its gigantic clawed feet came down, digging into the sand that formed the floor. It snorted again, before inhaling and arching its neck backward.
Micah threw himself to the side, cursing the uncertain sand footing of the arena floor as it slowed him. The beast exhaled a beam of light that slammed into the ground where Micah had been standing with the force of a trebuchet. The sand exploded into the air, spraying him with molten droplets that rapidly whittled away Micah’s hit points.
He rolled to his feet, patting out the areas where his cloak still burned from the hissing liquid beads of sand. Behind him, the ground clicked as it cooled, hardening into a misshapen crater of black glass.
“Well,” he mumbled to himself as he used mending to restore the hit points lost in the attack. “I guess that rules out peppering it with attacks from afar and using a wind shield to protect myself.”
The monster dug its claws into the sand, digging deep furrows before it launched itself into a great rumbling leap toward Micah that cleared almost a third of the distance between the two of them. It quickly settled into a sprint that covered an uncomfortable amount of ground with each stride. Micah frantically tried to cast plant weave as it charged, hoping against all odds that he’d be able to find dormant plant life beneath the sand of the arena floor.
The spell reached out searching for any signs of life to latch onto. The monster managed to take another two steps before the plant weave snagged a handful of roots dwelling conveniently close to the surface.
Immediately, Micah forced mana from the spell into them, magically inducing the dormant vegetation to grow. He completed the casting by implanting the spell image, his mental conception of what the completed spell would look like, into the roots. In his mind, they twisted together into a densely woven snare that stealthily slipped out from the sand and grabbed one of the monster’s ankles.
It’d do. It had to.
Micah held his breath, watching as the noose of roots crest from the sand just as the creature approached. With a burst of energy from him, it lunged upward catching the right front foot of the lizard.
For a second, everything worked perfectly, the lizard’s leg yanked against the vegetation, pulling itself off balance. It planted its other leg and strained to pull itself toward Micah.
Then the plants ripped, the overwhelming momentum of the multi-ton monster more than a match for a handful of hastily grown roots and vines.
Micah’s eyes widened as he began stuttering out the chant to updraft, hoping that he could get the third tier spell off quickly enough that he would be able to jump past the charging monster. It wouldn’t be in time. The scaled monstrosity was moving too fast and he’d tried the stunt with snagging its foot too close. He could already practically feel the creature’s hot breath on his face.
Its clawed foot missed the ground. The plant weave had thrown off its gait by a fraction of a step, and the lizard was moving too fast to recover. Micah could see the surprise in its eyes as it tumbled forward, planting its shoulder into the sand of the arena floor.
He finished the chant to updraft, jumping over the body of the colossal reptile as it slid past him, disoriented but mostly unharmed. He stabbed downward with the spear, triggering one wind spike after another that sparked off of its thick scales. They might have damaged the lizard, but Micah doubted it.
Landing, he spun and thrust his spear, launching another wind spike, into the softer scales of the creature’s stomach. This time, rather than sparks Micah was rewarded with a trickle of dark blood as the enchantment on his spear barely cut through the creature’s armored hide.
It flicked its tail in Micah’s direction, forcing him to throw himself face-first onto the sand as the blade whistled overhead. Whispering the words to root spears with his mouth pressed into the floor, he was rewarded with a bellow of rage as wooden stakes thrust upward from the arena and into the unprotected underbelly of the monster.
Standing up, Micah used the moment of distraction to run toward it, firing an air knife into its lower torso as it tried to pull itself to its feet. Another blast of light disintegrated a chunk of the arena’s wall as the monster tried to twist its head toward him. Silently he thanked his foresight in investing attribute points in both body and agility. They might not directly improve his ability to cast spells, but without them, he’d have been annihilated by that breath weapon. Twice.
Up close, he unleashed a sonic bolt at the monster’s head as it tried to stand. It stumbled, head drooping closer into Micah’s range as the vibrations rattled its skull. He cast the spell again, causing the monster's eyes to blank entirely as its body dropped bonelessly to the sand.
Smiling grimly he sprinted to its head, glad to confirm his suspicions. The colossus might have thick scales to ward off conventional weapons, but sonic attacks tended to ignore defenses like that. They might not do as much damage as a sword or a spear, but their vibrations to ruptured veins and damaged organs with almost no regard to the armor covering those soft tissues..
Adopting a ready stance of the Wind Spear style just in front of the monster’s head, Micah planted his feet and prepared his mana for the martial art. He stabbed forward with all of his strength. The gale thrust punched deep into the lizard’s unseeing right eye, hopefully drilling the spear into its brain.
It jerked its head up, the pain from the spear lodged in its head waking it from the sonic bolt induced stupor. Gritting his teeth, Micah held onto the spear with both hands, feeling it jostle back and forth deep in the creature’s skull as his weight wrenched the weapon to the side. Hot blood sprayed across the arena as it screamed defiance at him, roaring at a volume and range that promised he would need an augmented mending to repair his eardrums later.
Before Micah could complete the sonic bolt spell he was mumbling, the monster whipped its head to the side. The spear lodged in its eye shifted with a sickening squelching sound before it caught, stuck in the lizard’s eye socket. It jerked in Micah’s hands, but the combination of momentum and blood slicking the haft of the spear the spears haft was too much.
The slick wood slipped from his hands and Micah went flying. There was a brief moment of weightlessness before he struck the arena wall with an audible crack of breaking bones. Immediately, a sharp, burning pain erupted from his shoulder and stars filled his vision.
Micah stood up, doing his best to ignore the sharp throbbing from his left side. The creature was staring at him, its remaining eye clouded with rage while the other wept tears of dark blood around the spear. Its head pulled back as it prepared to exhale once again.
Micah sprinted toward it, ignoring the jolt of electric pain coursing through his shoulder with each jarring step. Dodging to either side would be futile at this range, it could simply adjust its head to the left or right by a fraction of a degree and he’d be nothing more than a charred addition to the arena floor. His only hope lay in the fact that every breath attack to date was telegraphed by the creature first rearing its curved neck back before lunging forward to exhale.
It wasn’t a given, but it might be possible to get close enough to the creature that it couldn’t angle its head downward quickly enough to reach him. The only other alternative was to try and find a way to deflect the blast which was patently impossible with his current spell selection.
The head thrust forward and Micah threw himself into a rolling skid, trying futilely to keep only his good shoulder in contact with the sand of the arena. He gasped in pain as his body weight pressed down on the broken shoulder, blanking his mind. Almost in slow motion, white light erupted from the creature’s maw, tracking a line in the sand toward him as the monster tried to adjust its aim mid-breath.
He stared at the advancing beam insensibly, the pain radiating from his shoulder stealing his breath and preventing rational thought. It cut out some five paces from Micah, a trail of burbling red hot molten glass in its wake.
The lizard wobbled, a spattering of scalding blood raining down on the sand around Micah from its wound. Staggering to his feet, Micah put his good hand on the creature’s chest and unleashed a sonic bolt directly into its torso.
Its head snapped at him drunkenly, the loss of blood and depth perception from its missing eye giving Micah enough of an edge to scamper away. He cast another sonic bolt, this one from close range into the back of its skull, the part of his mind detached from the fight noting his dipping mana pools.
With a crash, the monster slammed to the ground next to Micah, the impact of its fall knocking him from his feet and onto his injured shoulder once more. His world flashed black and stars filled Micah’s vision.
Micah blinked. His entire world was pain. Beyond the red hot poker lodged in his shoulder, his body was covered in bruises and abrasions. In the supernova of agony, time was meaningless. He might have been laying on the arena floor for a breath or five minutes.
Each breath lodged a molten spike of pain into his shoulder, the air hot in his lungs as it rasped past his ragged throat. His heart beat in his ears as a low moan unconsciously rose from Micah’s chest.
Without caring about the consequences, he cast augmented mending on himself twice, the first setting his shoulder and the second clearing up most of the internal bleeding. Micah rolled over and pulled himself up to his hands and knees, coughing up blood. At some point, at least two of his ribs had broken and punctured a lung. One or two inches deeper and the bleeding would’ve been too much. He would have never woken up from being knocked insensible.
Pulling himself to his feet with a wince, Micah looked over at the monster. Its chest still moved up and down shallowly, but it was clearly unconscious. Limping over to it, he cast plant weave, creating a rope of braided roots right in front of its head. He picked up the rope, gritting his teeth in pain as his body screamed at him for bending over.
With one smooth motion, he yanked his spear from the creature’s injured eye and shoved the length of roots into its place. The other eye opened hazily, the pain shocking it from its stupor. Micah stared it down, smiling grimly.
Without moving, he cast root spears on the rope. It erupted in wooden thorns up and down its length, shredding the soft tissue and brain inside the gigantic reptile’s head. Blood poured from the wound, hissing as it stained the arena floor.
Its tail twitched once and then the breathing stopped. Micah let himself slump to the arena floor, focusing on deep calming breaths to avoid panicking now that the wave of adrenaline fled his body.
Mist rushed into the arena, cooling Micah and quickly obscuring everything. The diffuse light around him grew to an almost blinding intensity. Micah brought his hand back up to his eyes, shielding them.
A second later, it was all gone. There was no mist and he was sitting in the room outside the boss’s chamber in the dungeon. The only signs that the entire encounter hadn’t been in his imagination were the bruises and scrapes covering his body and the ornate wooden box sitting on the stone floor in front of him.
Gingerly, he opened the box. Inside were the fruits of his labor, the rewards of a goddess that he’d risked his life to please. Two books. Both had leather covers inlaid with any number of precious and semi- precious gems in intricate designs and bound with what looked to be a golden thread.
Opening the first book’s cover Micah almost dropped it. The first page was without embellishment, simply stating Temporal Power: Its Collection, Transfer, and Usage by Mursa, Goddess of Moon, and Magic in plain but legible writing. With shaking hands he picked up the second book and opened it. The title was less shocking, but Intermediate Daemon Summoning by Mursa, Goddess of Moon, and Magic was still a work that would likely be worth hundreds of points of attunement.
Micah flopped onto his back with a smile. Maybe there was a way forward that didn’t involve going to the Royal Knights after all.