The Heart is a Void: Ashes to Ashes

by

MOROSE

Chapter 13?: The sound of the demon bell (Part II)

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The drum of Dr1fter's [Dragonbite] dagger against the stone wall of the passage rang out with a dull, metallic sound that vibrated and echoed quietly through the passage. The dagger had high base damage, and would increase in damage by 10% once the opponent had the [Bleeding] status effect. Once it struck this Knight, the fight would soon be over. There was no hurry.

Dr1fter stood tall in the corridor, casting a dim, long shadow across the passage, to see if the Knight would try anything. But the Knight sat silent, shivering loudly in the corner. Dr1fter shrugged and began casually walking forwards, deliberately moving in the direction of the Knight although with a gait that was more akin to a tourist walking in an art gallery.

As he stalked slowly towards the Knight, the Knight saw the level 67 player and began to stammer pleadingly. "Wh-what do you want?"

"I still haven't found what I'm looking for," Dr1fter replied, looking around absent-mindedly. "What am I looking for? Why, blood."

He kept his feet bent and slightly apart, ready to react if the Knight made a run for it. However, the Knight's attempt to run proved abortive, tripping over his own large boots. Dr1fter decided that he would have to make the first move.

He stepped quickly beside the Knight with long, silent steps, and the Knight desperately swung his sword towards Dr1fter. However, Dr1fter effortlessly raised his [Dragonbite] dagger to the left and blocked the strike, then used [Parry grapple] to grab the Knight's hand and wrestle the sword out of his way. Drawing down his left sleeve, he revealed a long, spear-like [Half-Stiletto] dagger fastened to a pocket in his sleeve.

He had designed this sleeve mechanism himself. In fact, if people in Sanra knew how many of their fancy clothes were designed by Dr1fter and smuggled in, they would be quite horrified. Very few players had decided to focus on the expensive [Tailor] tradeskill, except for pure crafters looking to take advantage of rich town mouse players who wanted fancy dresses. But Dr1fter's skill at this meant that most high-level Hashin had variants of the Assassin [Shinobi Shozoku] with several enhancements. Though this required many materials and a few attempts to get right, other Hashin crafters and Dr1fter's own gold helped provide the materials in bulk.

And at least one high-level player had been killed because he wore a shirt by Dr1fter which was intentionally made too tight and firm towards the back, allowing Dr1fter to walk up and attack him from behind without serious resistance. The Hashin liked to leverage their skills at crafting and miscellaneous foppery to target big-name and easy recognisable players, as well as streamers, by hawking items to them which the Hashin could exploit. In the process, they had a good idea of the fashion choices and other habits of high-level players.

There's no biz like showbiz.

As Dr1fter used a simple [Punch] with his left hand, the blade in his sleeve stabbed easily through the Knight's throat. Relaxing, Dr1fter saw that the Knight's name was [SirDream]. Drifting forwards with his left hand held out straight, hovering the dagger towards the bleeding puncture in SirDream's neck, Dr1fter pushed the Knight against a wall. He stepped firmly forwards, until the Knight found his own sword pressing against his face, locked in place by Dr1fter's dagger.

Calmly, Dr1fter activated the [Wheel of Fortune Tarot Card], which he had stolen from a dead high-level player. It removed all of the enemy's protection from their own skills and weapons, and allowed the user and allies to cast attacks using the enemy's weapon if they could grip it. This was mostly useful against Mages, and enemies with flamboyant attack animations such as berserkers or many AI bosses. Dr1fter had also found it useful in wild skirmishes, where it allowed Hashin Mages to deflect the arrows of enemy archers back onto the archers themselves.

Since these Tarot Cards were expensive paywalled items, many of their effects were highly unbalanced and 'broken.' This was one of them.

Dr1fter activated his sword skill, [Slice], and SirDream's sword tore a deep vertical gash in his own neck as Dr1fter pressed forwards and tore further across the wounds with a dagger. The sword and dagger almost moved in tandem, and soon were joined by the dagger in Dr1fter's left sleeve. As Dr1fter grabbed [SirDream] in a left-armed [Chokehold], the concealed dagger sprung easily into the wound and pierced upwards through SirDream's head.

Another victim of Dr1fter's infamous, fatal Chokehold, SirDream's corpse collapsed to the floor, dead.

As a brave female level 27 Ranger turned the corner and ran up vengefully behind Dr1fter, the Hashin leader turned slowly and shrugged off a sword strike to the left shoulder. Grabbing the Ranger, who was named [Evomii], by the cuff, Dr1fter snarled, "And now what?"

"Don't hurt my companions!" Evomii screamed. "Who trapped us here? Was it you?"

Her voice echoed in vain across the area.

"Ah, but it's not my fault. It's yours, for being careless." Dr1fter grinned.

As Evomii's furious eyes dilated, Dr1fter killed her with a firm [Panoramic Strike] straight through the centre of her neck, followed by a [Dagger Twist] that left her inner neck a mangled cavern of blood.

Dropping her corpse to the side, Dr1fter was pleased to see that she had dropped a [Guild Blessing Stone]. How had she come upon one of these rare stones? He guessed that she had probably found it in here. She must have spent her short time down here dreaming of escaping to show the thrilled leader of her small Guild, [Ganang], that she had found a stone which would mean a lot to the humble Guild, he figured. He paid this no mind, and continued searching through the underground tunnels for enemies.

The other Hashin members had surged in and killed one more player from this small 'city' beneath the temple.

"Don't see anyone else here," Vladislav called out from the right.

"Then let's go on," Dr1fter said. "If anyone is left, it will be in the direction of the Mausoleum."

Sure enough, as they pressed forwards through the mazy tunnels, navigating through a few large, curving tunnels until they were almost underneath the centre of the temple, they saw that one last player had fled towards the large, green-and-grey door which marked the entrance to the Mausoleum. However, this level 25 Ranger was seemingly kneeling on the floor about 200m distant from the door, trying to struggle to his feet. He could not seem to pass any closer to the door.

As Dr1fter approached, signalling to the other Hashin members to guard the passageway in case this target managed to flee past him, he saw that there was a large, empty wooden coffin next to the player. It was old, with its light-brown surface scratched and dulled. However, if the level 25 player tried to run past it towards the Mausoleum, then the heavy pull of the empty coffin dragged him to his knees and towards the coffin's empty space. As such, he kept his distance from it as he got up now, and stared despairingly at the approaching Hashin player.

As Dr1fter walked forwards slowly, with sword drawn, he could feel the tension rising. He could make out the level 25 player's name, [Thobond], and that the player was shivering angrily but in fear.

"What's wrong with this dark world?" Thobond was muttering. "And what's wrong with the people here? People like this... emotionless..."

Once Dr1fter was within a few steps, Thobond finally snapped and heaved at Dr1fter with a high-effort [Overhead slash]. Dr1fter had begun to raise his sword, but did not bother to move it as Thobond's strike collided weakly with his shoulder. Dr1fter lost 0.7% HP from the strike.

Thobond's eyes lit up with a maniacal sense of bravado, as his strike connected. He was fighting a Hashin, he thought, he was the hero fighting a villain. In his eyes, this Hashin embodied all flaws and arrogance, and Thobond was a plucky but well-meaning do-gooder. Adrenaline ran as this fight began, though its rush had no real sense of direction.

"Nice block! Is this your first fight?" Thobond said, laughing in a tense voice.

"No," Dr1fter sighed. "In fact, I've had a few fights where I lost over 1% HP. You'll have to try harder. By the way, did anyone ever tell you that you sound like a simpleton?"

Spurred on by this taunt, Thobond defiantly launched forwards and swung his blade in a [Heavy slash] towards Dr1fter's head. But Dr1fter waved his wide, iron [Jester's Song] sword nimbly to his left to parry this strike, then stepped forwards to the right. Pressing the bottom of his sword's black hilt to Thobond's chest, Dr1fter lifted an elbow to Thobond's face and elbowed him easily to the floor.

The [Jester's Song] sword was Dr1fter's second-choice sword, but he used it on journeys like this because he didn't want to risk losing his stronger [Black Fate] sword. He typically reserved [Black Fate] for tough PvP fights or high-level dungeons. The [Jester's Song] had a grey iron blade which seemed faded and aged, with large black patches and small dark-green lines around it like a painting's frame. However, it was incredibly sharp, and more firm and nimble than it looked. He had picked it up from a whale whom he had ambushed when it emerged from inside a high-level dungeon.

Thobond lay in a heap to the right of Dr1fter, and breathed heavily due to the recent, aggressive pressure from the sword's hilt on his chest. Dr1fter stood over him, unmoving. After 10 seconds, Thobond tried desperately to get up again, barely able to grip his sword properly. As he began to rise to his knees, he felt a firm force pulling him straight up.

Dr1fter had grabbed him by the cuff of the neck, and pulled him to his feet, using a nimble [Blade strike] to send Thobond's sword careening away. As Thobond stood groggily on his toes, eyes wide, Dr1fter shoved him into the iron stakes to the right of the gate. Keeping Thobond pinned to a stake, Dr1fter drew his dagger.

He made a light [Black Spot] cut across the front of Thobond's neck. Blood began easing out.

"Bad! You're bad!" Thobond screamed.

Impatient, Dr1fter caught Thobond in a [Chokehold], blood spurting readily from the enlarged wound torn by the dagger in his sleeve.

"You think this makes you a great player? Flexing on people barely worthy of fighting?" Thobond screeched.

Dr1fter smiled. "No, I don't."

As he said this, he used [The Ripper] to slowly cut across Thobond's throat as he angled his sleeve's dagger up through Thobond's head. Thobond tried to scream, but it came out a diminutive croak. In a few seconds, Thobond died, and Dr1fter dragged the corpse roughly to place it in the empty coffin.

The coffin's lid creaked as it slammed shut, closing with a loud sound like a cathedral's bell. It was sated, and now the group could pass into the Mausoleum.

"Did the guy stop screaming? What a relief," Vladislav said, as he approached. "I thought he had turned to a banshee."

"And if you listen, maybe you can still hear him singing," Dr1fter said sardonically.

"Quite. By the way, we found a grate on the right side of these tunnels, I looked through it and it seems to have a view of the distant dungeon near Sanra. There's also a small mossy door beside the grate, and it looks like that leads to a long tunnel towards the dungeon, but it's one-way so we can't open it. Might be how they got here. Anyway, so this is the Mausoleum?"

"Yes. Show caution."

The area around the Mausoleum had little light, and darkness hung around it like a thick mist. As the Hashin players walked towards it, Dr1fter suddenly felt himself being pulled harshly towards the left.

As he flourished his sword, he saw that a large, black bat-like creature had been concealed within the gloom. It was now raking him towards it with its sharp claws. He quickly used [Slash] to dislodge a claw from his left shoulder, then distanced himself from the bat with [Dodge Step]. He backstepped into a small pocket of faint light, hoping that the bat creature would follow him and allow him to glimpse it in the light.

As the creature fluttered its wings faintly and launched towards Dr1fter with its upper body and rat-like face, which was approximately the same size as a human face, Dr1fter caught its head with a firm, blunt [Mordhau] that left it temporarily disoriented.

Looking above its head, he saw that it was a level 75 mob named [Mausoleum Creature]. While this strong Hashin team could handle a level 75 creature, despite it out-levelling them, there were probably more of these creatures waiting in the gloom. Dealing with multiple of them could be too much. Besides, this level 75 encounter was unlikely to be the strongest monster in the area.

As Vladislav and Jin also surrounded the bat, striking it fiercely, it let out a faintly guttural hiss. One of its wings extended and caught Vladislav's face, knocking him down. However, Dr1fter took advantage of this opening to use a [Lunge] that stabbed firmly through the creature's neck, then used the hilt of his sword to beat back the foe's head. As he stepped back, the creature's eyes stared after him as it bared its many, needle-like teeth.

It approached again, but froze in place as Vladislav leapt onto its back and used [Stunning Dagger] behind its neck, as Dr1fter cut into the fromt of its neck with a fierce [Mordhau]. This was enough to drag it down to 65% HP. Through the gashes on its neck, a few firm, seemingly decayed nerves could be seen jutting out like wires. It clawed Dr1fter away, and flapped its wings violently to try to dislodge Vladislav.

"Another one!" Jin cried out, as his attempt to strike was disrupted by a sharp push to the back of his head.

As he hastily broke his fall with a roll, Dr1fter saw that two more Mausoleum Creatures had appeared behind Jin, both level 80. Hearing a faint, moaning sound behind him, he dodged to the right to avoid yet another [Mausoleum Creature] dragging itself along the ground towards him out of the gloom.

This wasn't a fight that they could win.

"There might be more to come, we can't fight them all off!" Dr1fter called out. "To the Mausoleum!"

As most of the Hashin made a break towards the Mausoleum door, the creatures began to turn in that direction. However, Vladislav leapt between the creatures and the door, withdrawing a second sword and activating [Dual-wielding].

"I'll hold these critters off, you guys rush the door!" he called out.

Dr1fter nodded sagely. "Very well. Thank you."

Vladislav held out his two blades far forwards, using his high Agility and Dexterity to slash and stab at any creature that approached before nimbly stepping out of range. While the creatures gradually clustered around him, he was generally fast enough to interrupt encirclement and aggro any creature which looked like it might approach the door.

After 15 long seconds of fiddling with the rusty latch, Dr1fter managed to hold the door open. After the Hashin players had slipped in, he saw that Vladislav had been reduced to 30% HP, but was still hanging in there and striking at his foes. Since the creatures were large and lumbering, their attacks were interrupted as they crammed into a small space around Vladislav and got in each other's way. Nonetheless, they were still steadily chipping away at Vladislav's HP.

Dr1fter sighed, then shut the door before painstakingly locking the latch back in place.

As he gazed across the large hallway in front of him, he was alarmed when he saw that many of the coffins - mostly lining niches on each side of the wall - had been violently flung open and often had broken hinges or were lying at odd angles across the large, wooden platforms across the niches.

"Wait, look out, there might be a creature inhabiting these after throwing out the last inhabitant," Dr1fter said. "We should avoid this floor."

However, Crodel had already walked tentatively up to a large coffin on a table in the middle of the room, while Dr1fter had been fiddling with the door's latch. As Crodel approached the coffin to look inside it, a white, withered hand emerged from it. Squinting, Dr1fter could see the tag [Nosferatu (boss)] hovering over the coffin, along with, 'level 150.'

The creature's hand reached out laxly towards Crodel, and then began to clench. The skill name [Blood Curse] appeared, and blood suddenly began to spurt from across Crodel's body, as well as out of his mouth. Crodel half-screamed, clutching his blood-stained chest, as he fell to the ground. In a few moments, he was dead.

"We need to get out of here," Dr1fter whispered to Jin.

Jin swore, despairing at this tense situation, but followed Dr1fter down a spiral, stone staircase to their left.

There was a loud creak from above them, as the Nosferatu rose up from its coffin to wander the room. However, by now they were already out of range, nearing the musty floor below.

On this floor, there was simply a large, empty room. On the left wall hung a fading painting of a man walking on the sun. There was a door at the far side of this room, covered by a series of paintings depicting ancient Kings. A lunette above this had a heavily scratched mosaic depicting further Kings, mythical ones said to have reigned at the beginning of the world.

"The Kings... maybe this door will help," Dr1fter said.

"Yes, it reminds me of the temple dome paintings," Jin replied.

"Good observation."

As Dr1fter inched open the door, a loud, low-pitched roar resounded from somewhere behind it. Squinting through the gap, he saw that the room ahead had a large hole in its floor, which broke through to an underground cavern. In this cavern, there was a massive, bulging yellow-and-black monster, with a lion-like beige mane over a large, scarred rat-like face. As it groaned and clawed its way across the low cavern, it soon moved out of sight.

However, its loud breathing could still be heard.

Wondering if this room was a trap, Dr1fter let Jin enter first. When Jin was able to make his way safely to the right wall of the room, and edge along this towards the other side, Dr1fter followed him. The floorboards creaked loudly as the two made their way across, but held firm.

The monster from below had begun grunting more loudly. It seems to have sensed them, but was too far down to act on this.

Behind the monster was a small room, whose iron door had a dazzling golden handle sculpted into the form of a snake.

"We want to get down into that room," Dr1fter said tensely. "There seems to be a few rooms above it, maybe we can find a way to enter it from above."

"That handlebar looks familiar..."

"Yeah, there was a similar sketch from that letter supposedly written by a deity named Atruscazon, the one which said 'There is no signpost saying: This way leads to the gods in the heavens, and the other path leads to barren death.'"

"Yes, yes. You think it's a good lead?"

"We used his map of the caves without issues. And if a monster like this is guarding the room from direct entry, it should be important, right? Anyway, let's see if we can find a way there."

On the other side of their current room was a door into a long hallway, with several small, open doorways on both sides of the hall. Quiet, eerie groans occasionally emerged from the doors. In one room further down the hallway and to the left, a low-pitched voice repeatedly chanted, "Mih-rab," as if in a religious reverie. At the end of this hallway was a stairway, but it led upwards rather than down.

"Well, we'll have to take that staircase and look for a way down after. Look out for anything attacking from the rooms." Dr1fter sighed. "It's going to be a long night. And it's only nearing evening."

"Don't fancy this would be a good place to sleep?" Jin replied, forcing a smile.

"I'faith it would. Ah, but in that sleep what dreams would come?" Dr1fter said. "Ahem. Onwards, now."

He took a few, silent steps into the hallway, towards the staircase.

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MOROSE

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