Daniel stood in a bustling city. It was an almost nostalgic sight. It was not the nearly medieval buildings he was so familiar with nowadays. There were no gothic towers peeking out of the corner of his eyes. Neither were there tall walls girdling around the city, keeping out the monster from beyond, built to fend off armies of thousands of [Mages].
Instead, it was a modern city. It was filled with the blare of traffic— cars were honking, screeching down intersections, with drivers shouting at each other for their own bad driving. The sidewalks were bustling with people going about their day. Some of them were staring down at their smartphones, too preoccupied to even see where they were going. Others were chatting with their friends, practically hugging each other.
But wait, this wasn’t right. Wasn’t there something… a pandemic going on?
The young man was confused. Puzzled. He looked around, trying to find any semblance of reality at what he was seeing. Then he paused. He saw a young woman standing before him. Brown hair. Hazel eyes. A kind smile on her face.
Daniel’s heart stopped. Aren’t you…? The question crossed his mind. But he threw it aside, reaching out desperately for her.
And reality shattered.
Blinking, Daniel found himself standing before a grave. There was crying, sobbing. A single teardrop streak down his cheeks, and he was now in his college dorm. His roommate was livid, demanding to switch rooms.
Daniel sat atop a pile of garbage, plastic bags, empty pizza boxes, all the trash he hadn’t bothered to clean up. He watched his roommate storm out. And he wished he was dead. No— he wished to start life anew. In a better world. In a place where he actually meant something to those around him.
There was a flash. A glint of gold and silver. Daniel covered his eyes, and he was now surrounded by knights, a king sitting on a throne. Beautiful ladies flocked to him. Gorgeous women he would never have hoped to show interest in him.
One of them in particular caught his eye. Her orange hair stood out like the sunrise at dawn. Her name was alluring, a beautiful word that seemed to fit her personality.
Daniel was caught in a web of lies. He didn’t know what the truth was. He was happy— content. He was a [Hero]. For the first time in his life, everyone looked up to him. Children stopped him in the streets just to speak with him for a moment. They listened intently to what he said, an illusion he was happy with believing. Until everything came falling down.
The world froze over. Green flames burned away the web that had caught him so tightly in its snare. A powerful blizzard raged all around him. He glanced around, searching for his friends.
No response came. The sky darkened overhead. The green flames coalesced into bones, building a towering figure over him. His eyes grew wide as a giant skull stared down at him.
“You are no [Hero].”
The ethereal voice came at him from all sides. He felt his legs giving out. He trembled before the overwhelming enemy. He couldn’t do anything.
Daniel spun around, running from the Lich. The Lich laughed, and the world around him crumbled. He fell into a pit of darkness, screaming, hoping someone would save him.
That was, until a sharp pain stung him across his face.
“Daniel! Daniel! Wake up already!”
Salvos slapped the young man across the face. He leapt to his feet, blinking.
“Ouch— what is wrong with you, Salvos?!”
He looked around. He was in a dark cave, only a small blue fire lit up its interiors. Then he stared at Salvos, and she breathed out in relief.
“Oh, you’re alive. Good.”
“No thanks to you. You slapped me.”
Daniel narrowed his eyes. Salvos raised her claws defensively.
“I only did it because you didn’t want to wake up!”
Shaking his head, he let out a sigh. There were plenty of other ways she could’ve tried to wake him up. He knew she probably only slapped him because she wanted to. In fact, why did she even need to force him awake?
Daniel paused, the events of earlier racing through his mind. His eyes grew wide.
Salvos held up his arm. It was wrapped in hastily put together bandages, lying next to a few empty vials of healing potions.
“I tried using your healing potions, but they didn’t work. I wasn’t sure why. I think it had something to do with the Lich’s ice— it froze your blood. I had to burn it off before I could properly heal you. So, um, sorry for using half of your potions.”
She scratched the back of her head, avoiding his gaze. Daniel stared at her.
“Uh, thank you.”
He felt slightly embarrassed now, for assuming she was messing with him. He looked down at his arm, inspecting it, flexing his hand. There were some scars, but otherwise he could move it without a problem.
“I’m assuming you used all the high quality healing potions, didn’t you?”
Salvos grimaced, and he rolled his eyes.
“Of course you did.”
“We still have some lower quality potions! Just… not the ones that can regenerate a lost arm.”
She gave him an uneasy smile. Daniel shook his head, mentally taking stock of what he had left in his Dimensional Storage Unit.
“Alright, so we still have seven medium quality healing potions, nine—”
“Wait, that doesn’t matter right now!”
Salvos cut him off, waving her arms. He blinked as she spoke hurriedly.
“We need to find Edithe. The Lich took her!”
“The Lich… what? Why? How?”
The young man didn’t know how to react. But she continued.
“He would’ve killed us! He had this ice beam which tore the earth apart! But Edithe stopped him— she told him to take her and let us go.”
Salvos’ shoulders sagged the more she spoke. Daniel opened his mouth, trying to figure out what to say. But nothing came out.
The Demon girl steeled herself and continued.
“We have to find her. Save her from him!”
Daniel spoke faster than he would’ve wanted. It was a cruel thing to say. Especially to Salvos who would never leave behind her companions. But the Lich was far beyond their levels. It was suicide.
“The outcome won’t change if we go after him now. We’ll lose, just as we did before. We have to return to the Human lands, find allies.”
“That’ll take days, Daniel. What if the Lich does something to her by then?”
“He’d have already hurt her if he wanted to. He wanted her alive.”
Salvos frowned. She crossed her arms, meeting his gaze with a wisdom he didn’t know she had.
“There are worse things than death, Daniel. You know that better than I do.”
He flinched. There was a flash. A memory. Was it because of that nightmare he had that Salvos’ words stung harder than ever?
“Even so, it’d be stupid for us to go after the Lich. We’ve had this discussion many times, Salvos.”
“It’s different, this time.”
She faced him seriously. Daniel frowned.
“Because this is our best chance at finding them.”
Salvos stood up, glancing out of the small cavern they were hiding in. She placed a hand on her chest— something was off, Daniel could tell.
“Edithe told me to come find her after a day passes. I saw where the Lich was taking her. Northwest.”
The young man stared at her dubiously.
“How are we even going to find the Lich? The Plaguelands is… large. Even if you know the general direction she went, that doesn’t mean we’ll be able to find her.”
“Because Edithe took my Horn of the Caller.”
Daniel remained silent. It was ridiculous. They lost to the Lich very easily earlier. They’d lose again. Edithe was, more often than not, pragmatic. Sometimes she’d be stubborn and hardheaded. But when it came to herself, Daniel knew she was the one to sacrifice herself if a situation turned awry. So, why did she do this?
Salvos seemed to know what he was thinking.
“When we were fighting the Lich, Edithe told us that there was no use attacking him. It would regenerate from whatever attack we could muster. Not unless we found where his life force is stored.”
Daniel tapped a finger on his chin, understanding.
“Edithe thinks the Lich will bring her to it. And then we can destroy it together.”
This was a risky plan. Daniel didn’t want to do it. He still felt the sharp pain in his arm from when the Lich crushed it with his icy grip. But they couldn’t just leave Edithe, right?
It was foolish. It was a [Hero]’s thoughts. Maybe Salvos disagreed. She wasn’t a [Hero], nor did she think it was foolish in any way. She thought it through, and she believed it would work out. Daniel, on the other hand, thought it through, and he only saw failure. However, despite their constant disagreements, their arguments and their squabblings, they both agreed on one thing:
It was the right thing to do.
“Are you certain about this?”
She met his gaze, her golden eyes unwavering.
“Good, then we’ll need this.”
Raising a hand, Daniel summoned the Herald’s Brush. Salvos blinked. Then a grin spread across the Demon girl’s face as she saw it. She grabbed a hold of it, nodding.
Then she paused, as if remembering something.
“I just hope I don’t get teleported to another plane of existence again.”
“Do not be afraid.”
The Lich held out a hand for Edithe. They stood on a tall stairway, leading up to a ruined castle. Its foundations were falling apart. If not for the immense magical Edithe sensed filling the walls and the bricks of the keep, she was certain it would have collapsed by now.
Behind her, the Plaguelands sprawled out, riddled with blight flower fields, the brown smog rising up like a thick blanket, covering the sky towards the horizon as well as the rising sun. She saw more undead than she had ever seen in her life on the way to this castle. Hundreds of them. Thousands. Enough to fell a country.
[Zombies], Skeletons, Ghouls, [Wights], [Revenants], Draugr. They all listened to the Lich. They bowed to him as he passed, almost floating, his foot seemingly never leaving the ground and never touching it at the same time. The lowest leveled of the undead were at their 50s. The highest was Level 120.
A pair of [Revenants] guarded the massive gates leading into the keep. They held ethereal weapons in their hands— some sort of magic which enchanted a chosen item they touched with power.
Edithe was led through various halls and chambers, each of them in a state of decay, what were once glorious rooms taken over by time and death. She paused right by a painting, the only thing that had its majesty preserved throughout the whole keep.
It depicted a red-haired woman. Not Edithe— she had a pair of dazzling purple eyes and a skin so tanned it seemed like she had been working in the sun all her life.
The Lich stepped up behind Edithe.
“Ah, Lilian, you have not changed since I last saw you. Even after all these years.”
“I… I am not Lilian. I don’t even look anything like her.”
He ignored her, brushing his cool, prickly fingers over her cheeks.
“When I came into this world, I had nothing. They took me from my world, took my life away from me, and turned me into their slave. But when I met you, you freed me. You gave me a reason to live. A life without you is a life with… nothing.”
The Lich continued on his way, musing only to himself, uncaring of what Edithe said. He took her to a room with a set of double doors at the front. She narrowed her eyes as he gestured for her to enter.
“What is this place?”
“It has been so long since you’ve last been here, it is no wonder you have forgotten. Enter, my dear, for it is your beloved room. The room where I first met you. Where our love bloomed and the seeds of our future together were sowed.”
Edithe hesitated. That’s… But she entered anyway.
Her eyes grew wide as she stepped into the room. She froze right by the doorway, her mouth hanging open. The Lich patted her on the back and turned around.
“It has been a long day. I am sure you are tired, my beloved. Now rest while I tend to our kingdom.”
He slammed the door shut, leaving Edithe behind, all alone in the dark, empty room. Except, if it were empty, Edithe would have happily sat on the violet bed and begun planning her escape. But she wasn’t alone.
Of course she wasn’t.
Because she stood in a room filled with corpses.
These weren’t skeletons. If they were, she’d be fine. Instead, she was in a room full of bodies of women. All of them with the same fiery red hair Edithe had. And they were frozen, faces full of horror, eyes filled with terror.
Edithe clutched tightly onto the Horn of the Caller hidden in her pocket, glancing out the window, past a frozen figure of a woman longingly staring into the outside.
Wait for the sun to set. When the moon is at its highest. Salvos and Daniel will come for me— I know it.