Chapter Eight: The Thorn’s Bite
She killed me for the second time that night.
The dagger pierced my body through the middle as I followed the instinct, fully expecting to shock her once again. However, this time she was faster. This time the instinct guided me poorly. Betrayed me.
I felt sudden, unbelievable agony as I flopped to the ground, gasping. I saw her lift her boot above me.
Then… I awoke.
Dungeon Home was blue again. Quiet again. The Bugbears were all fine. Red Thorn was gone.
…Until she wasn’t.
‘No… please,’ I thought, many cycles later. Eight times, and this time I’d failed to catch her off guard. She’d caught me mid-strike with her hand and my shocker couldn’t reach her. I quivered in her grasp, electricity fizzling out as I went limp. I tried to lift the shocker to sting her arm, but that went against the instinct. The instinct that I’d thought I could trust.
She raised the knife. I whimpered. I died again in agony.
Then… I awoke.
Dungeon Home was blue again. Quiet again. Red Thorn was gone.
...Until she wasn’t.
‘Why does she keep doing thi–!’ was my last thought a few cycles later when Red Thorn again returned to find and kill me. The dagger descended. My colors iterated. Pain was all I knew.
Then… I awoke.
Dungeon Home was blue again. Red Thorn was gone.
‘Instinct…?’ I thought, trembling in anticipation of more red flames. ‘What do I do…?’
The instinct told me nothing.
Red Thorn was anything but predictable. I tried to count the cycles between her arrival but there was no pattern to it. Sometimes she returned within one cycle. Sometimes, not for five. Still other times she left me alone for as many as ten cycles. Those were the worst, the ones where I could pretend things were back to normal. Where I could pretend to still be that naive Jellyfae I’d once been.
The instinct didn’t always fail me. Not every time. Not at first.
Sometimes, I managed to shock her, which was usually enough to kill her outright because I never fought alone. If they could hit her, the Bugbears with me could beat her to oblivion. Then she would be gone, and I would have a few precious cycles of peace where I could dream about just hiding in a corner instead of following the instinct.
Occasionally, the Bugbears just caught her by surprise. But… those were few and far between. The vast majority of the time, Red Thorn proved more than a match for the instinct, my bugbears, and me all at once. And she was growing stronger.
I’d lost count of the number of times I’d died to that instinct-cursed knife. I began to despair. For all my thoughts, all my plans, the instinct would never let me act on them.
‘If I ambushed her from above…?’ The instinct rejected the idea. ‘If I left Buggy’s sword somewhere she might be distracted by it?’ The instinct again refused to let me try. ‘What if I stung a Stalactite and let it drop on her when she wasn’t aware…?’
The instinct was a harsh guide, and I dared not disobey. The ideas in my head multiplied and bloomed, but I just couldn’t act on the plans that I made. If I did… that would be giving in. It would be breaking the rules, which I’d sworn not to do. Breaking the rules was what brought the Red Thorn, and I still thought breaking her own instinct was how she had become like this.
But… even as she killed me over and over, she seemed so free. She’d talk to herself sometimes, picturing some other person as she killed me. Someone named Sharon who I didn’t know. I was… I was nothing more than an outlet.
My pain and horror and entire life were somehow this monster’s relaxation tool. I began to see her as both a punishment and a fear of what I might be. The devil herself. Red Thorn, with her silver thorn daggers that stung again and again. She became more monstrous to me. Her red hood was a thing of nightmares.
Each time I died, I felt more resentful. The instinct wasn’t a presence with me. It wasn’t looking out for me. It was a beginner’s rule book to a game I didn’t understand, and it was doing nothing but getting me killed.
Death hurt. The only mercy was that Red Thorn never prolonged it. She killed me quickly. I did her the same courtesy.
Until I didn’t.
Until I couldn’t.
Until I never killed her again.
While I was stuck following these asinine rules, forcing me to attack her while her back was turned, regardless of whether or not she knew I was there, she was growing! Adapting. Getting faster. More graceful. More aware. Becoming more of a nightmare to me. Not many cycles later, she began gathering all six Bugbears right in the first chamber and fighting them all at once while waiting for me.
The bugbears were even worse. I’d scream in my head for them to dodge but they wouldn’t. I’d see ways in which they could organize and attack in unison so she couldn’t dodge, but they didn’t. Instead, they did the exact same things over and over again. The ways they attacked were as predictable as their cycles.
Was it any wonder that we failed? That I failed?
I began to resent even my family. Did they think like I did? Did they hide within the instinct, thinking of all the ways they could trick Red Thorn? Make her go away? Make her leave?
She didn’t ever fight Ghoul, nor did she fight Momma Bossbear, at least not while I was still alive. I didn’t have a good idea of how long passed after I died, but as far as I knew, she only ever attacked the bugbears and me. Over and over and over again until I lost count of the attacks. The cycles. The relentless, endless invasions that I could neither ignore nor escape.
“This is… almost becoming too easy. But dammit, your crystals are so fucking useful! Ten to fifteen dexterity every single time I come down here!” Thorn exclaimed as she dodged my frantic strikes with unbelievable speed. “I’m still level 11 but I have over four hundred dexterity! Do you know how fucking fast that makes me? I solo’d a level 19 dungeon the other day. All thanks to you!”
She hugged me then, somehow pinning my shocker in a way that kept me from attacking her but not hurting me at all. Like I was just a play thing. A toy. A… a damn bugbear.
Something broke in me. She was… looting my body? A-after I died? Revulsion filled me. Revulsion and rage.
No. This would not stand.
I ignored the instinct.
I floated up, sliding straight out of the Thorn’s grasp. She blinked, shocked. Then she fell, literally shocked, as I electrocuted my entire body rather than just my stinger.
While she’d grown faster and her strikes always seemed to kill me almost immediately, it seemed she had not grown more resilient. I flushed a glorious red of rage and radiant passion as I watched Bugbear’s sword come down on her shocked face.
I trembled. It had been so long since I’d broken the rules. I’d used to do so all the time, but the invaders… I’d been so sure they were the instinct's way of punishing me.
But now… now, to find out the Thorn was visiting other dungeons? Other homes? No. No.
I wouldn't let this go on.
I… I would break the rules and become a monster too. I would become her nightmare.
Yes. That sounded good. Like something worth breaking the rules of life for. Bugbear howled in triumph and I jumped a full three feet in panic.
I turned to him, and a feeling I didn’t understand overtook me. I felt a wetness in my membrane.
“We’ll… break the rules together then? Bugbear?” I asked, frightened and excited all at once.
Bugbear looked at me. He actually looked at me. I bloomed with yellow joy.
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I'm Materia-Blade. I've been a long time fanfiction writer, and have recently decided to toss my hat into the original fiction arena. I love fantasy, sci-fi, and Lit-RPG's and have read hundreds of books from each genre.
My new story Artificial Jelly has released and is currently being pretty well received! Excited for it to hit trending! Thanks to those who support it, and me, and I hope it continues to impress!
Hope to hear from you soon!