The Heart is a Void: Ashes to Ashes

by

MOROSE

Chapter 13: When you die in a sea of lava, that's amore!

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After reading the poem, Crucis received a large amount of Experience, enough to lift him to level 23. This unlocked the Trait system. Crucis, for his part, was slightly tired after having slain his zombie belle dame sans merci, and he was still frustrated that Yorick's book was empty. He wasn't really in the mood for the sole alternative of reading about what a moray is, and besides was already familiar with most salient facts about morays, such as that they are big eels with teeth like steel, that the green moray is big, mean, slimy, and green, that its jaws open wide and there are more jaws inside, etc. He knew what a moray was. However, without anything to read from the enigmatic Yorick, he started to think about other things that he could read about instead in order to calm down after the fight.

When he had moved to the USA, he found modern American literature jarringly different from the traditional Russian and Eastern European poetry which he had admired in youth. He still felt slightly estranged from most novels, and scavenged in them more than he enjoyed them. As such, Crucis' taste in books was by now largely situational, and he often read as a means of visualising and thinking about his current situation. For instance, right now he would have liked to have read a somewhat macabre, minimalistic horror story, because he could consider the current situation in a more detached manner and find some relevant atmospheric and psychological themes.

It would be like a method of profiling the situation, and thereby also interrogating what the game's horror-tinged atmosphere could be used for. In the midst of the fray, it can be easy to miss out on some things, such as how Crucis ended up having to reverse the zombie's own modus operandi: just as the zombie attacked Crucis when he was grasping for the treasure and vulnerable, so Crucis had only been able to launch an attack on the zombie after it lunged too far to grab him and he could attack it from behind. Both were cases where grasping eagerly in one direction left them open to attack from another.

Although forced into playing the opponent's game, it was still possible to take advantage of this situation by weaponising it. Confronted with the necessity of dealing with Medusa's petrification, Perseus had famously watched a reflected Medusa's gaze trapped on his shield as he killed her, and eventually took on Medusa's gaze as a weapon of his own and used it on his enemies. Crucis thought of this story now, and wondered if he had a way to weaponise this zombie's modus operandi by attacking players on the verge of a reward. He thought back to Cael's [Minor Illusion] skill, and wondered if he could use that to create the impression of a reward to tempt players nearby, and then attack them. Perhaps there was still some life in Cael, and he resolved to bring the Mage back to Kruxol so that he could find some targets in the wild.

Part of the reason that he was frustrated about the zombie was nerves. He was here to find treasure, but if he found it he would still have to escape this place without being killed. If other players saw him claim the treasure, they would probably attack him in order to loot some of it. He almost felt like he should turn back and leave this area in order to keep all the rewards he had gained so far, but he knew that he wouldn't have much chance of returning here and should get whatever advantage he could from it.

However, he still felt uneasily that some figure acting like the zombie would ambush him or sneak up on him as he tried to find the treasure and take it safely out of the labyrinth. He decided that, if this was a game where his rewards are so beset by danger, then after he returned to Kruxol he should turn the tables by using Cael's illusion skills. He felt like it would be a waste to get through all of this tension and not weaponise it after he left. If the game could be so dedicated to producing this kind of tension, then he could also hold it up like Medusa's head and use it for his own advantage.

However, he would have to finish with this labyrinth first, and still had some treasure to find. Fiddling dizzily with the door-knob, he found that he could open it now that the zombie was gone. Relieved, he exited the room and looked around for any signs of activity. There was nobody nearby, so he shut the door to the wooden building and started looking through his inventory.

He drew out the [Vulcan's Hammer] artifact that he had obtained, a black-grey hammer that felt like titanium, with dark patches around the hilt where it had seemingly been burnt by a harsh fire. It seemed too burnt and brittle to use for blacksmithing. He wasn't entirely familiar with the artifact feature of this game, but checking the item's description he found that it could be used to enchant a weapon with the [Inner Fire] perk, where if the weapon wounds an opponent the opponent's skin has a 5% chance of being charred by Vulcan's power, which increases the duration of the wound, reduces natural recovery of HP, and has a 5% chance of paralysing that body part for 15 seconds. The player could only enchant one weapon at a time in this way, and could only use one artifact at a given time.

Since Crucis had only one artifact at this time, he decided that he might as well use it, and enchanted the [Initiate's Dagger] that he was using. He would have liked to find a better dagger, but hadn't had much luck with that yet.

Checking the game's menu, he found that he had unlocked the 'Trait' system. It felt like a while since he had done the same with Cael. Scanning the initial options, he found that he had two branches of traits to choose between:

[Spectre | Trait: Increases Strength and Dexterity by 20% when under 20% HP.]
[Deadly Premonition | Trait: If the skill 'Stealth' is used outside of battle, its cooldown reduces to 15 seconds. The CD will revert to its normal length if battle is initiated while using the skill 'Stealth.' This Trait also applies to more developed forms of the skill, such as 'Stealth Cloak.']

While [Spectre] sounded highly useful if he needed to make a comeback in a fight, and was favoured among Assassins who entered PvP tournaments, Crucis chose [Deadly Premonition] because it would help him to explore outside the city without being detected. Since much of the game was quite difficult to navigate by now without being attacked, the ability to use [Stealth] rapidly could be highly valuable. It could also be useful for scouting out players to attack.

[New Trait unlocked! Deadly Premonition | Trait: If the skill 'Stealth' is used outside of battle, its cooldown reduces to 15 seconds. The CD will revert to its normal length if battle is initiated while using the skill 'Stealth.' This Trait also applies to more developed forms of the skill, such as 'Stealth Cloak.']

[Sorry, that was slightly long. Hope you don't need a tl;dr, you won't get one.]

The game sometimes sent messages like this after a particularly long or obscure notification.

Crucis tested the new skill quickly by using [Stealth], and verified that the CD timer was indeed only 15 seconds. This could be useful, and he listened carefully to the path forwards to hear if there were any players or strong monsters nearby. He heard a few loud footsteps that probably indicated a powerful monster, a loud hissing sound somewhere forwards and to the right, and the sound of a player sprinting in the distance. The player sounded like an archer, as their footsteps were fast but not as silent as an Assassin's. Crucis decided that he should scout the area quickly, to figure out if there were any powerful monsters or bosses to avoid. After that, he could try to find the way to the treasure which had been indicated on his map.

Stepping forwards, into a straight path leading further into the labyrinth, he heard a loud grunting to his left. Using [Stealth] once he reached a crossroads, he peeked around the edge of the left wall, and saw a large beast that was named [Diablo] and was level 40. It was shaped like a giant armadillo, and had thick black skin crossed by red, vertical lines that resembled magma. Crucis decided to avoid this beast for now, and ducked down a rightwards path. While he tried to go to the far-right end of the path, in order to get closer to the treasure, he heard the unsettling hissing noise again and was cautious. Looking around, he finally determined that the source of the hissing was a large, broken cage besides a path from here to the top-right area of the labyrinth. While he wanted to go in that direction, he decided that he should take another path, as a broken cage was sometimes used in games to represent a powerful boss who has broken their chains.

Finding a path that looked safe and led nearer his destination, he proceeded forwards while looking cautiously from side to side. He was slightly worried because he had heard a player nearby, and if that player saw him finding the treasure then he could be targeted. After all, opening a valuable treasure would mean that killing you would loot some of it. Due to this, he tried to pause next to a wall, and quietly listen for any signs of a player nearby.

While it was quiet for a few seconds, he soon heard the sound of some arrows being notched to his left, and the cry of a wounded creature that fell heavily on the ground. There was the sound of a few more arrows being shot, and Crucis realised that the archer he had heard before must be grinding against mobs nearby. He could make out a few mobs named [Blind Boar] nearby, thick-haired pigs with slippery skin like a salamander's, and guessed that they might have some valuable drops which the player was looking for.

He would have tried fighting the boars himself, but didn't want to risk being noticed by the other player. The boars were level 15, meaning that the archer was probably at a similar level to him.

As he was considering his next move, he heard a loud noise behind him. It was the loud grunt of [Diablo] in his lair, who had been challenged by a player. It echoed through the labyrinth, and Crucis was relieved that it wasn't directed at him. Backtracking a few steps towards where he had seen [Diablo], he saw a tough-looking level 42 warrior clad in thick iron armour.

Their thick armour and shield marked them as a member of the [Legionary] subclass. This Paladin-like class was effective at tanking damage and had a few healing abilities, but most higher-level parties in dungeons preferred the [Knight] subclass for tanks, as they could contribute more damage and hold aggro more easily. Crucis peered cautiously at the battle from behind a wall, ready to flee if seen.

The Legionary had already thrown a javelin as it approached [Diablo], piercing the beast's shoulder which was bleeding with magma. The Legionary then activated [Paladin Barrier], creating a barrier of light around his shield to block Diablo's inevitable response. As Diablo swiped harshly with its heavy, clawed right paw on sensing the intruder, the Legionary raised his shield to the thunderous blow and reduced the damage of the attack by 90%, causing it to only deal 1% of his HP in damage and send him stumbling back a step. The glow around the shield dissipated. The Legionary had clearly expected Diablo's fierce response to the javelin throw.

As the Legionary sought to capitalise upon his early advantage, striking a firm [Gladius Thrust] with his sword and catching the beast's trailing right arm, he was suddenly thrown back as Diablo used [Fire Breath] to open its mouth and breathe out a thick wave of heat at the warrior. While the boss didn't let out a stream of fire like many famed depictions of a fire-breathing dragon, it steadily exhaled a fiery, ashen breath that sent the warrior falling backwards. Crucis could hear a faint cry as the warrior managed to break his fall with his arms. Since the boss used named moves, it could cause pain.

The Legionary got up to his knees and used [Damp Sphere], creating an area around him where damage was reduced by 25%. The boss, however, seemed prepared for such maneouevres and responded with [Ashen Realm] in the same area, with its wounded shoulder leaking fiery, burning magma across the circle which the Legionary had protected and reducing it to a burning wasteland.

The Legionary managed to leap out of the circle just in time to avoid getting trapped in the lava, but not before some had splashed over his hand. He screamed loudly at the sharp sting of heat across his right arm, and nearly dropped his sword. Both him and the boss were now down to 85% HP. Diablo walked nonchalantly over the magma and ashes he had unleashed, as if it were nothing, and swung its right paw at the Legionary again. The Legionary raised his heavy, square shield to block the strike, but still took 5% of his HP in damage. However, he used [Riposte] to strike harshly at the boss' extended right arm again from behind the shield, causing the beast to groan loudly in a gruff tone.

The Legionary now had the boss down to 75% HP, while having 80% HP remaining himself. So far, he had managed to eke out a slight advantage, while focusing his strikes on the boss' favoured right arm to weaken the opponent's attacks. This wasn't a bad position for a Legionary. However, Crucis sensed that after disrupting the Legionary's [Damp Sphere], Diablo had demoralised the Legionary and the Legionary was running out of plans.

Nonetheless, the Legionary was still hoping to carry out a war of attrition. He used [Healing Sphere] to summon a ring of light around him, increasing his HP by 1% every second for 10 seconds. Diablo attempted to strike the Legionary out of this sphere to stop the healing, but the Legionary's shield again rose up to take the sting off the blow, and the Legionary dug his feet into the ground at the edge of his healing area to continue healing. Diablo crouched slightly and scratched the ground with its right forepaw, but made no move forwards, and the Legionary kept still until he had healed back to 90% HP.

However, the Diablo had been preparing to unleash a [Demonic Charge], rifling its body forwards with its head down and heading straight for the Legionary. This was a fierce attack, but was telegraphed by the boss standing still and facing the player while crouching, so players could dodge it. The Legionary, however, was trying to stand his ground in order to heal, and was caught flat-footed by the charge. Attempting to leap to his side, he was still caught by the shoulder of the charging beast, and the blow skittled him to the ground. Crucis winced slightly, and reflected that in a game with such powerful attacks the role of a Legionary could be difficult because each false move forced you to seek a way out of the opponent's dangerous momentum. The Legionary writhed on the ground slightly, reduced to 60% HP.

As Diablo attempted to walk up to the wounded warrior, however, the Legionary threw another javelin. The throw was slightly weak and wayward, but it still dealt 5% of Diablo's HP in damage and stopped the beast in its tracks. The warrior, heartened, scrambled to his feet and used [Deep Jab] on the beast's injured right shoulder, causing the beast to groan loudly again and stamp the earth loudly. The beast was now down to 70% HP. The Legionary comfortably deflected Diablo's right paw with his shield, since his continual strikes had weakened Diablo's right arm significantly. Striking back with another [Gladius Thrust], the Legionary wounded Diablo's forehead and sent a small trickle of magma blood leaking out. Diablo lowered its head at the blow, and as it was dizzied by the wound it barely moved. It seemed to try taking a step forward, but instead just shuffled its feet along the ground without going anywhere.

The Legionary was pleased to have reduced the beast to 55% HP, and figured that the beast would be more easy to block due to its damaged right shoulder. However, he was still wary about the recent [Demonic Charge] attack, and didn't wish to risk getting caught by the full force of such a charge. Seeing the beast stand still and expecting another charge, the Legionary made a blunder and used [Fortify], standing still and doubling the power of his shield while reducing the power of charging attacks by 50%. Diablo had not been preparing a charge at all, and instead met his static opponent with [Ashen Realm], pouring his magma-like blood into a circle around the Legionary.

The Legionary was caught in the middle of this fiery flood, and felt his skin being torn away by the heat around him. He screamed in agony, and was consumed by tears. As he fell to the ground and tried to crawl out of this burned area, Diablo used [Beast Stomp] to step harshly on his enemy and reduce the Legionary to only 10% HP. As the Legionary finally crawled free of the burning ashes and magma, Diablo knelt over him and used [Fire Breath], with the yelping warrior almost melting to the ground as his HP reached 0%.

Crucis had considered helping the player out, but decided against it because he knew that, even if they both managed to kill Diablo, the other player was level 42 and could easily kill Crucis right after that. Further, Crucis could also be killed by Diablo, since the beast was over his level and attacked fiercely. He felt a slight desire to fight this impressive boss one day, and see how he would fare once he was above level 40, but he knew that it might not be possible to enter this area again since he had no sure way of getting maps to enter it. Due to this, he tried to forget about it and focus on his current journey.

He heard the archer still grinding mobs at a distance to the left. It seemed that they were planning to fight there for a while. Crucis tried to plan a path to the right, towards where the map had indicated treasure.

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MOROSE

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