It was Lottery Day. Nicolas expected nothing, and was blissfully drinking down the last dregs of a bowl of noodles, the hot oil-infused broth heavy with flavorful sediment. A wave of light passed overhead, signalling the drawing.
And something chimed in his head.
The notification sang. A sudden weight appeared in his pocket.
You have been Selected.
Initiate System for more information.
Instantly panicking, fighting not to show any sign of surprise or joy, he put down the bowl and dropped a shaky handful of coins on the counter. Before he could get his change he was gone.
Nicolas didn’t dare open the message until he was alone. Slipping into an alleyway he grabbed hold of the rooftop shingles, planted his foot on a barrel, and hoisted himself up. It was cold and there was slippery ice on the tiles, but he just pulled his jacket up higher and ran along until he found a quiet place, above the crowd and the noise of City Dungeon Layer d23.
Every orphan knew- when times were bad, go to the rooftops. And when you found something valuable, things would get bad very fast.
He slipped into an alcove between two towers, bracing himself as snow slid away underfoot. Wedging himself down securely, and making sure nobody could see him, he whispered. “System.”
Sitting in his pocket was a golden sphere the size of a fingernail.
You have been selected.
Your role in the New World “Earth” will be - Class F Monstrosity.
To accept this duty simply declare ‘I swear allegiance to the High Sept and the Low Tomb.’ and consume the Transmigration Pill.
In the heights above him, the City Dungeon defied physics. Ribbons of street with identical houses on both sides rose up into the air and bent back down, forming enormous loops with their own gravity. Huge square sections of tenement towers and skyscrapers lifted up from the ground and moved through the sky before settling back down, rearranging the city like a puzzle.
And Nic might never see any of it again. The excitement was so pure it was dizzying. The shock felt like a punch in the gut. He read the message again and again.
He’d won the Lottery.
Every year, new worlds opened across the Cosmos. They were more or less invaded, the residents put through a brutal gauntlet of tasks called the Integration meant to weed out weak from strong. And every Integration meant a gold rush on the riches of a new, undefended planet.
The rich would pay millions for a chance to join an Invasion force as a footsoldier.
The Logos would restrict your strength to prevent you from overwhelming the natives, but even that could be an advantage. Alone on a new world full of powerful Cosmic Essence, fighting constantly for lucky treasures that could advance your cultivation by years? It was the perfect battleground for countless young scions and old devils caught at bottlenecks.
Best of all you’d be able to plunder countless treasures and test yourself in battle without any risk- the Gold-Class Tickets ensured that the Logos would simply teleport you back to your native realm in the event of a death.
And that wasn’t even mentioning the positions the truly rich could buy.
An Invasion Leader was even more restricted than a footsoldier. They would be unable to leave their home base until the first time period had ended. However, they’d be able to bring more of their innate skills and powers into the New World, and they’d earn a share of everything the soldiers beneath them plundered.
By comparison, a Wave Leader had even fewer restrictions. They would appear as part of a massive uptick in monster spawnings and lead the wave towards an enemy settlement. Their only major drawback was the need to conclusively win the battle or be exiled back to their native realm.
And above all, Dungeon Leader positions were coveted. A Dungeon Leader could never leave the dimensional rift they started in, but they had the luxury of waiting. Every week that they remained undefeated they would claim the resources of the entire rift for themselves - and if they were defeated they’d simply be allowed to return.
Nicolas hadn’t won any of those.
But he had won more of a chance than anyone else had ever given him.
Becoming a monster meant just that. For whatever reason Logos couldn’t create minds, so he would be abandoning his own body to take control of a spawned terror on the New World. Class-F meant he’d be nothing more than a trash spawn. Meant to fight and die and give others a chance to grow.
But it was a chance.
There’d be no last minute teleportation for him. If he died, he would stay dead. Logos wouldn’t even save his body; the only way back would be earning enough merit to buy a new one and transmigrate his mind.
Only- Nicolas laughed- why would he ever want to come back?
Looking out at Layer d23, all he saw was a cage for unwanted people. The city was wrapped around the remains of the ancient leviathans who used to defend the Dungeon - skyscrapers stood in the shadow of rib bones that towered up miles high, and tenement slums crowded beneath the teeth of massive, monstrous skulls. When the Dungeon had dried up, it had become a place to throw prisoners, debtors, and the crippled.
Neon signs flickered in the snow. Hollow-eyed skulls stared up, mansions built within the empty sockets.
Even the richest man in d23 would be nothing but a footsoldier.
This was his chance. Giving up his body, giving up everyone he ever knew, it would hurt. It just wouldn’t hurt as bad as waking up tomorrow knowing he’d live here forever. That the city would be built on his bones as well, soon enough.
He’d spent every Lottery day hoping. In his dreams he won a grand prize, a footsoldier’s path, even a Leader role. But this? He would take this.
Nic was so excited his fingers were shaking. His whole body was, and he nearly doubled over, struggling to breathe for a moment, the reality finally hitting. He was getting out.
His hand reached for the ACCEPT button.
And he paused.
One thing first. One very important thing.
He swung by the carpenter’s shop where he lived, renting out a little upstairs attic with his Distribution money. It was a small and dingy shop, but the smell of woodshaving and lacquers was pleasant, and Old Pavel who owned the place was deaf as anything, which kept the place quiet as a grave.
There was almost nothing in his room worth keeping. A few sets of clothes, a dreaming crystal that could turn his petty supply of Essence into visions of better worlds. A workbench strewn with half-carved runes. Runes he'd worked at with the same passion he'd once found training in the blade. If he’d had more time to practice Nic was sure he could’ve learned to draw proper Symbols and made a living as a runescribe, adding magical scripts to armors and weapons, but as it was he could only practice for a few hours after each Distribution before his Essence ran dry.
They wouldn’t have that problem in the New World. Essence would flow like water.
What he was looking for was at the bottom of a wicker chest. Beneath his clothes, beneath the old photographs his family had left him - at the very bottom was a small, slender dagger. The tapering blade was two fingers long, and made from good honest steel. Most swords and knives in the city were bone, chipped off the corpses of the leviathans.
This came from beyond.
Palming it up his sleeve, he went down the stairs two at a time, finally daring to show some sign of excitement now he was alone. His heart sang. His worries were gone. Even if he died now, he’d die with a hope of something better.
His excitement lasted to the gates of the orphanage, where he slowly, cautiously fought down the smile, tidied back his hair, and knocked on the door.
Beldam Winters opened the door. She was a tall elven woman with pleated blonde hair and ice-blue eyes, her lipstick coming in the exact same wintery color. In all the years he’d known her, the Beldam had never aged a day, and she’d smiled almost once. “Ah. Nicolas Winterhome, come to darken my doorstep with his schemes once more. Breakfast is over, if the limits of your design was begging for food.”
“Oh, come on now, Miss Winters.” Nicolas had never felt like the troublemaker the Beldam thought he was. He’d never gone looking for trouble - it had just found him. “My schemes are a source of delight and wonder for the children. Anyway, I’m only here to see Tarquin. I promise I won’t get him into any trouble.”
“Believe it or not, Nicolas, I’ve never lost much sleep over my wards getting into trouble. That’s what children do. I worry about the day they can’t get back out of trouble again.” Sighing, she stepped out of the doorway and let him in.
The inside of the orphanage was a dark concrete bunker. Just the sight of the peeling paint on the walls and the smell of human bodies in misery made Nic tense up. The walls were soaked with bad memories. An hour ago he’d won the lottery. He’d felt like the king of all shits. But this place made him feel ten inches tall, an orphan again, a nobody.
This place had too much power over him.
If anything could brighten him back up, it was Tarquin. The little goat-kin had his enormous floppy ears tied back behind his head. He wore loose, ill-fitting clothes, with a dagger stuck through a belt of rope. When Nic walked into the dormitory he was teaching a much smaller child to stack cards into little towers.
His eyes brightened the moment he caught sight of Nic. Nic, well, he felt pretty much the same way.
“Brother!” Tarquin hit him like a cannonball diving into his arms. It was like being hit by a sack of sticks and bones. Even the best-fed goatkin were scrawny and small but Tark had never been full a day in his life. The boy was nothing but sharp angles and flapping ears.
“Attaboy, Tark. I missed you.”
“You don’t come to visit often enough.” He accused, still grinning ear-to-floppy-ear.
“Well, today I’ve got a treat for you, how about that?” Glancing around the room, Nicolas leaned in and whispered as quietly as he could. “We’re going to get you a shard.”
Tarquin’s face went pale. He was so shocked he could barely keep his voice down. “What?”
“You heard me.”
“No Nic, I don’t think I did. Or- You have to be kidding.”
“C’mon. I’ll explain on the way.”
The Temple of Heaven’s Glory was a remnant of the old Dungeon. A low, hexagonal building, each wall carved with murals of gods and heroes in stunning white alabaster. A dome of gold rose from the center to catch the light and gleam like hope itself.
This was where heroes had come to receive Quests and Attunements. To this day every orphan and nobody of the city was allowed a single visit to receive a Shard from the gods. If you could grow that Shard within you to completion you might even be judged worthy of leaving d23 and climbing the layers.
But nothing was that simple. Gangs of tall, well-fed brutes sat on the steps, or lounged with the marble statues of goddesses that lined the walkways. If there was anything of value in the city, it was here.
So why wouldn’t the city’s cutthroat scavengers be here as well?
Anyone who wanted to actually claim their Shard would have to fight, or bargain, or plead their way through. Most of the time, their lives ended on the steps outside. Shards could be taken from the dead and somebody else would win the benefit of their one chance out. Somebody who could pay.
And anyone arriving on a Lottery day was going to have a bad, bad time.
He wasn’t the first to try and cash in his Shard on the day before leaving forever. Plenty of Lottery winners figured their odds would be better with a little power from the gods backing them up. The problem would be getting up the steps.
Tarquin was hidden in the shadows of the nearest alleyway, waiting. Breathless and counting every second as Nicolas strode up the front steps.
He got three steps up before a big, tough thug stepped in his way. He was from some outer world, with pale blue skin and eyes of pink quartz-crystal. A spear in his grip.
“If you’re coming up our steps, you best be paying, lowlife.”
Nic just smiled as the knife dropped into his hand and he stepped forward. Before the slumdog could raise his spear - long after Nicolas was too close for it to help - his knife had plunged into the blue skin of the thug’s belly. He yanked upwards and pulled it back out in a spray of blood.
The dead man gaped in shock. Surprise and inertia kept him on his feet for a moment.
Anybody could pick up a weapon and revolt. Anytime, anywhere. If they were brave enough, any idiot with a knife could take down any one of the countless petty tyrants who ran the city. The problem was, the other tyrants would come for them, and that idiot would spend their last moments learning whole new worlds of pain.
But Nic could escape from them forever. And suddenly, Nicolas was the bravest idiot in the world.
The golden Transmigration Pill was already in his mouth, waiting to be swallowed.
He jammed his knife upwards, through the tall, skinny creature’s ribs, and ripped it out again. This time the dead man dropped, and Nicolas reached up to grab his spear as the other gang-members hollered in alarm and drew weapons.
Swords. Crossbows. Big heavy clubs.
It was the crossbows that worried him. A bolt through the head and he wouldn’t have time to swallow the pill.
Shouts of outrage. Angry curses. The thugs were coming down the stairs. And unseen, quiet as a mouse, Tarquin was darting towards the temple doors.
The first in line was a huge, thick-bodied orc with an obsidian-toothed club. Nic drove the spearpoint for his heart and felt the whole length of the spear shudder as the orc knocked the blow aside. The thug’s savage face went wide with triumph as he lifted a killing blow-
Nic leaned forward to plant a brutal headbutt into the orc’s tusked face. In the instant the idiot was stunned, Nic’s grip slid down the spear, and he yanked it backwards to snag against the thug’s legs and send him toppling over.
It was a brute move that would only work on an enemy who wasn’t expecting a real fight.
The orc must have been surprised Nic even knew how to handle a weapon. It would’ve cost him his life, but Nicolas didn’t have the chance to finish him off. He had to raise the spear and strike as an elf lunged for him, sword reaching for his chest.
The spear hit the elf’s throat, but not before the sword lashed across Nic’s shoulder. They both stumbled. The elf went to the ground. Nicolas threw himself behind a statue at the base of the steps, hearing the hiss and crack of a crossbow bolt striking against the stone.
Blood poured out of his ruined shoulder. The pain was sickly-warm and heavy and made his whole body shake.
He only had to hang on until Tarquin was out.
Dragging himself up to standing using the statue’s plinth as leverage, he slid the knife into his teeth and lifted the spear in his one good hand. He wished he had the elf’s sword. It was a far better weapon if he had to fight with one arm.
They were coming slowly now. As they hit the bottom of the steps they spread out into a ring around the statue and around Nicolas. He saw the ugly, sneering confidence in their faces. Three men in all with a fourth up high with the crossbow. They knew they had him cornered - one step outside of the statue’s shadow and the whistling flight of a crossbow bolt would end him. They just had to dig him out patiently.
But they’d just seen two of their friends die. One of them failed on ‘patience’ and lunged forward, a crude cleaver of an axe swiping down at Nic. He swung the spear in a low sweep as he dove aside, and the tip scraped the man’s ribs with a show of blood.
He hit the ground as the axe smashed into the statue where he’d been. Dropping the spear from his hand, he grabbed the knife and flung it dead into the man’s stomach.
The big brute gaped in shock. Nic flung himself forward, hitting the man with the full force of his momentum, trying to knock him off balance and rip the knife back out to finish the job. Instead, the blow jarred against his injured arm. The sheer shock of pain blinded him for a moment - the world was replaced by a heavy white fog.
It was only a split second. But it cost him everything.
Nic’s fingers missed their grab for the knife and clawed awkwardly at the man’s skin. Just as they found the base of the handle, a club cracked across his back and he was thrown to the ground by the brutal force, still weaponless, reeling.
He rolled on instinct and barely avoided being decapitated by a sword swing. Adrenaline sung in his veins. One mistake- dying a little too quick- and he’d be gone. No chance to swallow the pill and speak the words.
Was Tarquin out safe?
He couldn’t go. Not yet.
A boot collided with his gut, and then his nose. A fist grabbed him by the auburn hair and yanked his bleeding face up to meet a brutal punch. He fought, half-blind, going for the eyes with his fingertips. They held him back and down. “You little shit-”
Slowly, his arms were wrestled behind his back, and then Nicolas was well and truly fucked. He gazed up at the remaining men.
The one he’d caught with the thrown knife was leaning against the statue’s base, blood pouring over his body. The orc had a bruised eye and a bruised ego. The man holding his arm back had sour, alcohol-drenched breath, with a hint of peanut butter sandwiches for a truly stomach-churning combination.
But the scary one was the elf. Clearly the brother of the one Nicolas had killed. Clearly angry. And held his hand was a bone knife, the kind of beautiful, twisted little thing that could peel the skin from your muscle and fat in moments. “You have no idea.” The elf spat. “How bad you’ve fucked up. And you’ll die in too much pain to understand.”
In all the coppery, bitter blood floating in Nicolas’ mouth, he found the golden pill. He thought the words.
“I swear allegiance to the High Sept and the Low Tomb.”
And in the instant before he could swallow, the knife’s hilt struck him across the cheek so hard he spat the precious glittering pill out in a spray of blood.
The world seemed to slow down as he watched it fall and bounce across the ground.
The elf was dead wrong. Nicolas knew exactly how bad he’d fucked up.
“Is that-” Everyone had frozen.
Even the half-dead thug with the knife sticking out of his gut was leaning forward, captivated by the spark of gold lying beside a chip of broken tooth.
It was the man holding Nic who finished the thought first. He flung Nicolas into the elf, and dove for the pill on the ground. The orc caught him halfway there, and the two hit the cobblestone street grasping at each other’s faces and trying to reach for the precious thing.
Nicolas stumbled against the elf. Pain and blood loss left him woozy, but he tried to grab for the knife, to fight for his freedom.
The elf kneed him in the gut and the blade ripped across his face, tearing into his nose. Blood washed down into his eyes as the elf kicked him again, sending him to the ground.
There was a whistling rush of air. The elven thug lifted a hand up in surprise to find a crossbow bolt had sunk through his chest.
The archer everyone had forgotten about had seen the pill now too, or had realized what was happening. They crouched in the shadow of one of the statues higher up the stairs, rushing to reload. For a moment Nicolas contemplated going after them.
If he had his full strength he could probably reach the archer before the crossbow was reloaded, then use it to finish the two on the ground.
But he didn’t have his full strength. He barely had any strength at all.
Nicolas stumbled forward. The two on the ground had gone from fists to knives, and the sound of blades biting flesh was a brutal, thudding heartbeat. His own heartbeat was drumming in his ears as he stepped over their struggling bodies to reach for the pill.
A hand grasped his ankle and he fell to the earth. There wasn’t enough strength left in his body to stand again, but he rolled over to stare up at death.
The orc had won. The man with the alcohol-and-peanut-butter breath wore a red necklace of blood carved into his throat. Now the blood-stained knife rose, and the orc grinned triumphantly.
Pale embers of fire flickered in his beard and hair. They burst open like white blossoms. In the blink of an eye the orc was screaming, and a moment later he had no air left to scream with, as his whole head was engulfed in roaring white flames.
Tarquin stood at the base of the steps, holding his hand out. Glowing light surrounded his fingertips and raced up his arm in the form of curling tattoos made of luminous ink, a single crystal set into his shoulder.
That was a good Shard.
Tarquin stood there shaking like a leaf. “Fuck you Nic, I thought you had a plan.”
Nicolas made one attempt to stand, and gave up as pain shocked through his brutalized frame. All down the steps bodies were littered like red leaves. The crossbowman was a burnt husk, the first victim of Tark’s new powers. The man he’d stabbed. The elven twins. The orc and peanut-butter-breath, tangled together in death. One thug was still alive, but only barely. His eyes were closed and Nic’s knife was still planted in his gut.
In the center of it all was Nic, still breathing, in pain but alive.
“Behold.” He was just strong enough to hold up a hand and gesture. “My master plan. The plan-master, victorious once more.”
“Logos and Pathos save you, Nic. You really were a crazy bastard.” Tarquin had tears in his eyes. It was sweet. They had almost been brothers - and it hurt to think this was goodbye.
“Yeah. Yeah I was, and I’m not done yet. Look by your feet.” Sitting next to the toe of Tark’s boot was a golden, hopeful gleam. The Transmigration Pill. The goat’s wide eyes got even wider as they realized what it was.
Hand shaking, Tarquin knelt down and brushed the blood away.
“A ticket out.” As he lay on the ground, too weak to stand, Nicolas watched Tarquin’s eyes wander back to him. He watched the terrible calculation taking place. The same one he’d make. The one anyone would make. Fuck. He should’ve been gone from here by now.
Going their separate ways quietly. No need to make the decision.
Even if he already knew Tarquin would make the right one.
“Don’t. You don’t have to say anything. I’ll see you when I see you.” The grin was shaky, and hesitant, and full of guilt for even considering stealing the pill away. He leaned forward and pressed it between Nic’s teeth. “You stay alive now, Nic.”
“Oh come on. How much trouble could I get into?” Swallowing, Nic felt the pill expand into a golden flame within his body. It was burning him away from within - but the sensation was oddly pleasant.
“It’s alright. I swear allegiance to the High Sept and the Low Tomb.”
The words echoed, and echoed, and echoed. His last sight of City Layer d23 was burnt out by golden flames.
And when he opened his eyes, they were new eyes entirely.