One strategy that horror movies employ to give their viewers the willies is to play what’s known as infrasound. It’s noise that’s just a few hertz below what’s audible for the human ears, but on a certain level, it can still be sensed. People can’t hear it, but their subconscious can, and that gives them a vague impression of anxiety that creeps in just under the skin.
That’s what Rob felt as he stared at the creature that Keira had called a Blight. An indescribable sense of wrongness that started in his toes and shivered up his body until it reached his head, causing painful pinpricks to start forming behind his eyes. He ordered his body to look away, but it wouldn’t listen, stuck in rapt attention of the creature in front of them that was less a living thing and more a void shaped like a monster.
The Blight lifted and observed its hand. Despite the creature being ten feet tall, its arms and claws were so long that it couldn’t put its arms down without its claws scraping the ground. It didn’t seem to mind. The Blight slowly wiggled its fingers and claws around, inspecting them from all angles like a cat with a new toy. Its claws left translucent trails behind in the air, emitting a sound similar to tearing paper that grew harsher the faster they were moved.
“The Infection was...oh, gods.” Keira spoke in a bare whisper, her voice strained. “We have to run. Before it notices us.”
All of a sudden, the Blight’s claws started to glow with a light that inverted the colors that passed through it. It reared its arm back before slashing forward in an underhand swing towards a random direction, claws slicing through the road without a hint of resistance and screeching out a cacophony of metal being ripped apart as they moved through the air.
Five shockwaves – one for each claw – blasted through the air like sonic booms. Thunderous pressure knocked Rob and Keira on their backs as a row of houses were obliterated into shreds of shrapnel that scattered across the street. The shockwaves continued straight on through to the next row of houses, and the next, a localized hurricane that decimated all in its path. When it had finally subsided, dozens of houses had been reduced to rubble in the span of several seconds.
Rob’s ears were ringing as he jumped to his feet. He was about to take up Keira on her suggestion when he noticed what had happened to the shelter, his heart dropping to the bottom of his chest. The front wall of the shelter had been clipped by a shockwave and blown completely off, exposing the Elves inside. Hundreds of civilians gaped in terrified shock as the Blight gradually turned to face them. The indentation where its mouth should have been widened, cheeks stretching in a facsimile of a smile. It raised its hand, claws glowing with inverted light once more.
Had there been an ounce of thought dedicated to Rob’s next decision, he wouldn’t have done what he did. He activated Rampage, charging forward at a speed far faster than what a Step of the Wind-infused sprint would have moved him at. Have to distract-
Keira let out a strangled cry that made her voice crack. It was the most panicked he’d ever heard her.
Panic. From the woman with Danger Sense.
The Blight tilted its head at the small creature making its presence known.
Rob’s hindbrain took over and hit the emergency button. He activated Not A Scratch, dumped all 20 of his unspent stat points into Vitality, and reflexively held his arms up to cover his face.
Claws swept towards him.
Not A Scratch partially br-
Rob’s brain shook inside his skull. The world pounded and spun and hurt. Seconds that felt like hours passed until the pain wracking through his body jolted him back to consciousness with a gasp. He was laying on the road far away from the Blight, clouds of dust rising from the gouges in the road that the shockwave had torn to shreds.
A deluge of system messages blasted at his senses. There were plenty of upgrades and Skills learned – including the magic-resistance equivalent of Tough Skin – but it was the messages at the beginning of the list that demanded his attention.
Not A Scratch partially [email protected]#oKeN!
2086 Slashing Damage Nullified!
38 Corruption Damage Nullified!
271 Slashing Damage Received!
7 Corruption Damage Received!
Passive Skill Learned!
Name: Regrow Limb
Prerequisite: Vitality 60, lose at least one appendage.
Description: Some things in life cost an arm and a leg, but at least you can get a refund. Regrow any lost limbs over a period of 24 hours. Assuming you can stay alive that long.
Rob blinked. He rolled his head to the side, ignoring the way his neck protested at the movement. “Oh.”
His left arm, above the elbow, was gone.
Yeah, he thought, numbly. That would explain the Skill.
HP: 149 / 793
Stamina: 79 / 210
MP: 1 / 50
Status Effects: Leveling High (Mild), Melancholia, Horrified, Corruption (-7 Max HP), Lost Limb: Left Arm, Bleeding (Severe), Mana Exhaustion (Mild)
By some miracle of providence, he had landed near their bag of supplies. Rob crawled over and ripped it open, guzzling down their last two HP Potions, making sure not to let a single drop go to waste. In the process, he noticed that his shortsword, still clutched in his hand, had been broken in half and now resembled a jagged-edged dagger more than a sword. A vague sense of loss – only partially numbed by his pain and shock – filled him as he looked over the broken blade. It had been with him since the beginning, one of the few points of stability he’d had in this dumpster fire of a world, and now it would never be the same again.
The Potions worked their literal magic, closing up the open stump of his arm, slowing down the blood spilling out with every second. It didn’t close it all the way, and he still had lacerations all over the rest of his body, but at least he wasn’t going to bleed out in the next few minutes.
Rob tried to stand, failed, and settled for sitting up, his bones creaking like an old man’s. He made an attempt to marshal his thoughts, figure out what to do next, but all he could think of was an image of those claws bearing down on him.
Then it appeared.
The Blight crept through the clouds of dust and smoke, it’s four legs skittering forward awkwardly in a way that resembled a spider that had just learned how to walk. Its balance straightened as it came closer and got more used to using its legs for locomotion. With every step it took, the imprints in the road left behind by its feet bubbled like Hydrochloric acid had been dumped into a hoof-shaped or claw-shaped mold. Its heavy footsteps were audible, but invoked far less dread than the paper-tearing sound its claws made as they passed through the air, the Blight holding its arms up and experimenting with finger motions once more.
Rob should have ran, but even if he had the strength to move, he knew the thing would have caught up to him in an instant if it really wanted to. He watched, shivering, as the Blight stepped over him and placed its four legs around his body. It stared down with its smooth, oval face, in an expression that Rob was somehow able to interpret as mild interest.
If looking at the thing from a distance had pinpricked the back of his eyes, seeing its dark, shifting form up close felt like holding up a heated lightbulb and pressing it directly to the surface of his retinas. It hurt, bad, and the agony intensified with every second that passed.
1 Corruption Damage Received!
1 Corruption Damage Received!
The Blight reached down with its right claw and gently, tenderly grabbed Rob’s head with the claw’s five sharp points. They didn’t break the skin. It moved Rob’s head around, examining it from all angles, searching for whatever would satisfy its curiosity.
1 Corruption Damage Received!
2 Corruption Damage Received!
Keira’s greatsword flew in from the side and crashed into the Blight’s head, breaking off a few of the smaller horns as it bounced off with a clang. The Blight made a sound that resembled a dentist’s drill on solid metal and jumped over Rob, halfway clearing the gap between him and Keira in a single bound. It landed at an awkward angle and stumbled, having to take a second to right itself. Keira’s greatsword reappeared back in her hands, and she took a stance, resolute despite the look of naked terror on her face.
Don’t, Rob thought. He tried to speak, but exhaustion pressed down on his throat. Don’t die for me. Please go.
The Blight raised its claw. Keira stabbed her greatsword into the ground and hid behind it. A clever plan that wouldn’t work. Rob knew it, and she knew it. Even if her greatsword was so freakishly durable that it survived the attack, it would be blown out of the ground by the impact of the shockwaves and leave Keira exposed to thousands of damage worth of shredding winds.
But it was a better plan than dodging. Danger Sense could only go so far.
The claw descended.
A force pierced through the air like an anti-tank rifle and collided with the Blight’s head. Several of the larger horns were blown away as it staggered back, nearly losing its balance. Its arm jerked at the last second, sending the shockwaves off to the side and demolishing another neighborhood with pure destructive carnage. The Blight righted itself as it screamed in high-pitched static and turned to face whatever had dared to wound it.
Riardin stood at the end of the street. Three bags were at his feet, his quiver was full of shining white arrows, and his bow was held in his hand. His fake hand. Riardin’s real right hand was missing, leaving behind a stump wrapped in a tight tourniquet. He leaned down near his quiver, grabbed an arrow with his teeth, drew it back as his neck muscles strained, and unclenched his jaw with a savage roar that Rob could hear even from a distance.
The arrow, wrapped in interlocking colors, shot forth with enough force to rip out Riardin’s left front tooth. It went wide, shooting off to the side and missing the Blight in a wide arc, before curving in mid-air to smash the abomination in its chest. Black shards shattered and fell, dissipating into the air as soon as they hit the ground.
Riardin coughed up blood. He bared his teeth, blood dripping down his chin and staining his shirt, and glared straight ahead with white-hot fury in his eyes.
“YOU WILL NOT TAKE ANY MORE OF THEM!”
The Blight charged forward on skittering legs. Riardin blasted out arrow after arrow, each one curving in the air to slam into the Blight as it tried to dodge. An entire large horn was blown into pieces, and one of its leg joints cracked as a missile of righteous fury struck it in the joint. Blood poured from Riardin’s nose, then his ears, but he refused to falter, empowering each arrow with mana that he couldn’t afford to spare.
Rob bore witness as a mortal man stood tall, stared into the abyss, and made it flinch.
Nine arrows had been let loose. Only one remained. The Blight was almost upon him; it had finished learning how to walk, and was quickly learning how to run. It folded its arm back, and when it had finally reached its prey, lunged forth in a stabbing motion.
A wisp of a smile flashed across Riardin’s face. The Ranger let himself fall forward, the claws passing over his head by inches. With his final arrow, held in his mouth, he stabbed into one of the bags at his feet just as the Blight was standing over top of him.
Three full bags of Firebombs detonated in unison. The explosion rattled Rob’s teeth and blew out the windows along the street. Waves of heated air washed over him and dried out his eyes. It wasn’t quite as destructive as the superspell that Elder Fareena had cast, but only by a hair.
Through the numbness coating his mind, Rob idly wondered if there was enough of a corpse left to bury.
Riardin. A single name, packed full of emotion that he had no time or energy to process.
Keira ran over to him and helped him stand. They stared into the cloud of dust forced out by the blast, hoping against hope that when it cleared, nothing would be inside.
Then, for the second time in so many minutes, the Blight emerged from a cloud and approached them. Rob’s eyes widened, because while the Blight was still standing, it had also been fucked up real good. Half of its head and most of its horns had been blown off. It was missing an arm, parts of its chest, and a full leg. It scrambled forward on the remaining three legs, wobbling and emitting a noise like a thousand hornets buzzing in unison.
Rob couldn’t keep a vicious grin off his face as he got a better look at the Blight’s condition. It was falling apart with every step it took, black chunks breaking off and vanishing into the air. Some of the ‘flesh’ of its body shifted around, trying to shore up the holes, but the effort did little to prevent the Blight from crumbling away.
It was dying.
And a second later, it realized that.
With a deep scream that pierced through Rob’s ears like a molten dagger, the Blight leaped forward towards the shelter. It landed hard onto its three feet and nearly fell over, more black flecks being knocked off by the force of impact. The civilians were scrambling to get away – why the flying fuck hadn’t they already gotten away?! – but the Blight’s claws were already starting to glow. Each Elf in the shelter could have 50 Dexterity and Step of the Wind and they wouldn’t be able to run fast enough to avoid the cone of utter ruination that the Blight was about to unleash.
Rob turned on Quick Thinking. Physically, he could do nothing. The only weapon left to him was words. He had to be a distraction, piss it off, just one last time-
Diplomacy made itself known. The Skill took its power and turned it on its head; an abomination would never be swayed by a heartfelt speech, so Diplomacy went in the opposite direction. It deduced the worst, most undiplomatic words Rob could have said, and instead of telling him to avoid that verbiage, started feeding it to him. Not just impressions, but full and complete sentences.
“You’re a failure,” Rob said.
The Blight froze in place. Its head creaked around, independent of the rest of its body, as it turned to look at him.
“You made it here,” Rob continued. “You finally made it here, after so much planning and hard work, and you pissed away your chance in a matter of minutes. All that power and what did you do with it?”
Rob gave it a serene smile. “Lose to a single Ranger, only Level 48, who was three-quarters dead and missing an arm. You were so arrogant, so sure of yourself, and look what your hubris got you. That delicious scent of blood in the air will soon be lost to you, and you’ll never experience it again.”
Diplomacy Level Increased! 5 → 6
Diplomacy Level Increased! 6 → 7
The glow surrounding the Blight’s claw faded.
Then it started to transform. Its head and horns folded into its chest, crunching together and mixing in ways that made Rob’s head hurt to look at. The center of the Blight’s chest sunk in until a concave circle had been formed. An inverted glow similar to the ones that had surrounded its claws started to form in the circle, intensifying rapidly and vibrating as more and more energy was stored inside.
Rob had watched enough television to tell when a final ‘fuck you’ attack was being prepared.
And when a laser was being charged.
Rob pushed Keira to the side and ran. “GET THE CIVILIANS OUT OF HERE!” She looked at him with a pained expression, but he preempted her argument before she could do something stupid. Doing something stupid was his job. “I HAVE A PLAN! I’LL BE FINE, I PROMISE!”
Passive Skill Learned!
He dismissed the window. He’d read the details later. If there was a later.
Even as he ran to the side, the Blight turned slowly, always keeping him in the line of fire. Rob got the impression that he had been marked for death, and that it could track him to the ends of Elatra if necessary. Getting out of its field of vision wasn’t going to work.
He hadn’t been counting on that, though. Rob had been lying to Keira when he promised he would be fine, but he hadn’t been lying when he said he had a plan – it just depended on how much time he had, and how fast his legs could carry him. His destination was close, but it might not be close enough for him to reach it in time. For the hell of it, he took a quick glance at his Character Sheet.
HP: 214 / 788
Stamina: 63 / 210
MP: 10 / 50
Status Effects: Leveling High (Mild), Melancholia, Corruption (-12 Max HP), Lost Limb: Left Arm, Bleeding (Moderate), Determined
It would have to be enough.
He turned off Quick Thinking to save Stamina and activated Step of the Wind, sprinting down the streets as fast as he could. His body was exhausted, but adrenaline helped split the difference. He tried every mental trick in the book to make himself run faster, up to and including imagining a bull chasing after him and hot on his heels. That didn’t work, so he imagined his ex instead. Much more effective.
Fleet of Foot Level Increased! 2 → 3
Rob rounded the corner, amazed that he was still alive, and found his Holy Grail. The Class Change Station was untouched and waiting. He burst through the front door, then into the back room, where the Class Crystal floated in mid-air. Four feet tall, and two feet wide; barely enough to cover him if he crouched.
And according to Keira, durable enough to survive a direct hit from the Cataclysm.
Rob pulled it down to ground-level, put it between himself and the Blight – he really hoped he hadn’t lost track of its location in relation to himself – and waited.
He didn’t have to wait long. One second, there was silence, the second: an eruption. Inverted light was flooding forth, surging around the sides of the Class Crystal, less than an inch away from scraping Rob’s arm and legs. The room, the walls, the ceiling– all of it disappeared. It wasn’t destroyed so much as it was atomized, ceasing to be like it had never existed at all. Rob’s eardrums immediately burst from the roaring tempest passing by his ears, and he struggled to steady his balance as the ground shook like there was an earthquake.
But the Crystal held.
The Blight’s attack continued, giving no sign that it was going to fizzle out anytime soon. In lieu of anything else to do, and to distract himself, Rob decided to bring up the Party List and check on Keira. He’d kind of left her in the lurch. She was tired from her battles and leading hundreds of civilians by the nose. Hopefully she hadn’t-
Rob couldn’t breathe. He read it, re-read it, and then read it a third time, but the text refused to change.
Ranger Level: 21
HP: 0 / 310
Status Effects: Deceased
Ranger Level: 18
HP: 0 / 280
Status Effects: Deceased
How long had they been dead?
When he was casually beating up an overgrown bug, snarking with Alessia, meeting up with Riardin and Keira...were they already gone?
Could he have helped them? While he was running around, only thinking of his own fucking problems, avoiding the Party Screen out of cowardice, could he have done something?
Had Keira known?
Rob screamed. His ears were deafened, but he felt it in his lungs and heard it in his mind.
And then blue light shined down on him.
He was shocked out of his wailing. Very, very carefully, he craned his head back to look up at the Crystal. A crack had appeared on its side, leaking out blue light like a busted pipe would leak out steam. It was a small crack, barely an inch wide, but just as he was able to convince himself that it wasn’t going to get any worse, the crack lengthened before his eyes. The fissure spread and branched out across the entire side of the Crystal. Bright blue illuminated his face, shining out of many myriad cracks as the Crystal trembled.
Oh fuck, Rob thought.
Oh fuck, Diplomacy said.
A message pinged.
For executing a self-sacrificial plan of inventive bravery that almost worked, you have been granted 1 of each stat point! Except for Magic. It’s more amusing if it stays at 5.
Goodbye, Rob the Human. You were fun.
The Crystal shattered.
Blue light flooded his senses, followed by the inverted ray of color. Both mingled as he was torn apart on a molecular level, his consciousness swept away into the ether.
Then there was nothing.