The Heart is a Void: Ashes to Ashes

by

MOROSE

Chapter 55: In the Court of the Crimson King

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The grey, stony walls of the Black Crescent Cave dungeon were dimly lit by fiery veins of magma radiating orange-red light across the stones. Crucis found the transition jarring as he shifted from his agile Mount to stooping and scuttling across the hard floor of a cave tunnel. He stumbled over a couple of sudden drops in the tunnel ground, since the light was still only faint, but managed to stay on his feet by placing his hands across the tunnel walls in order to keep balance.

The sound of loud footsteps echoed from ahead, and as he neared them Crucis saw a pale halo of light emanating from a chamber which the tunnel opened into.

"There are two guards in there," DicingDevil whispered from ahead, "Draw your weapons before entering. This isn't yet the difficult part."

Crucis heard the faint wisping sound of weapons being drawn around him, and he withdrew his own [Silver Wasp Sword]. Since he was expecting to use the sword more often in a dungeon, he had used the [Silver Orb] artifact to add his dagger's ability to the sword. It now gave an increase of 50% damage when he buffed his Agility.

"What's our strategy?" whispered Akshel, who was clambering through the dungeon a few metres behind Crucis.

"Dion is our tank, he'll go in and defend against one of the guards. Someone else should attack the guard once it's aggroed," DicingDevil answered.

"Akshel should do that, he's [Snake] sub-class," Crucis suggested, "If the guard is attacking someone else, then Akshel can probably tie the guard up in knots until they can be taken down easily. You saw his fight with Byron."

"Yes, true. Akshel would make a good offensive option. Me and you can take the other guard, and our Mage will stand back and attack or heal. The rest of you, make sure that the guards are occupied so that they won't go for the Mage."

"Are the guards bosses?" asked the party's Mage, [Grisier], from the back of the group.

"Nope, no pain from this fight. The next mob aren't either, then there's a mini-boss or two before the final boss. Then we can relax and wait for the other group to finish, they won't be fighting the final boss because it's too difficult."

"What about the optional boss?"

"Oh, the Undead Queen? It might be too difficult, but we'll see how smoothly we get past the first two bosses before deciding. Usually I'd skip it, but I'm nearing level 57 and Darys said a new feature unlocks at 58, so I'd totally put you guys in harm's way for extra EXP."

As the group neared the chamber, DicingDevil made way for [Dionarcy], the warrior who would function as a tank for this dungeon. Crucis saw this warrior lugging a heavy, grey shield, seemingly with difficulty. While shields would likely become more prominent in time, early-game shields were heavy and difficult to fight with, and often not really durable or versatile enough to wield in most combat. Outside of war, these weren't really practical in PvP combat, and even in war they were too heavy for an army to advance comfortably. Later shields would be less unwieldy, and more robust. However, in PvE and especially boss fights, shields were still de rigeur for tanks, because these fights were less about dynamics or mobility and more about the team members performing roles such as tanking damage from the boss.

Crucis could make out that the walls of the chamber carried a long, thin, delicate marble panel that stretched around the room. A few paintings were hung upon the walls, dimly illuminated, and the floor was covered by a red carpet covered with green, leaf-like patterns. The walls were painted scarlet, and had a line of floral designs on each end. White chandeliers lighted the room hazily from above. As Crucis approached, he saw that the guards were wearing tattered, broken armour over slightly greenish skin, and stared emptily like corpses.

Dionarcy was the first to emerge from the tunnel, and walked firmly into the chamber with his shield raised. He veered off into a corner towards the left, and the two guards began to approach him with slow steps that made the floor creak beneath them. DicingDevil soon darted out to accost one of the guards, striking with a [Slash] across the back of their head. The guard's head fell forwards with a dramatic lurch, but in spite of this the guard turned around and lunged at DicingDevil with surprising rapidity. Although DicingDevil hastily blocked the guard's sword, the guard's pale, claw-like hand caught a hold of his face.

Grisier quickly stepped onto the edge of the chamber and used [Mana Strike] to send the guard reeling away. Crucis pursued the guard, but the guard recovered immediately and slashed low towards Crucis with his sword. Crucis comfortably parried the guard's slash by holding his own sword horizontally towards the left, then seamlessly thrust forwards with a [Lunge] below the guard's ribs. This struck the guard and reduced them to 85% HP. Like most enemies in dungeons, these guards had higher HP than normal enemies.

As the guard tried to raise his blade upwards for another strike, Crucis felt this movement and slid his own sword upwards to continue blocking the guard's sword. While this allowed Crucis another strike, he heard DicingDevil approaching from behind. As such, he instead lunged his body forwards towards the left, using [Sword hold] to grab the guard's sword firmly, and used the base of his own sword to [Slice] at the guard's hand. While this would usually put Crucis in a risky position, due to his proximity to the guard and exposed flanks and back, Crucis wasn't as concerned because DicingDevil's [Ariston] sub-class allowed them to pin back an enemy effectively.

Since the guard's sword was out of the way, DicingDevil easily struck with an [Overhead slash] to the face which caused the guard to rock back, with Crucis aggressively stepping forwards to keep the guard's arm pinned. DicingDevil drove forwards with a [Lunge] that stabbed lightly through the guard's neck. DicingDevil then used his sub-class' [Drive] skill, taking firm, aggressive steps forwards with his sword outstretched in order to force the guard backwards, then placing one arm horizontally over the guard's face and forcing the guard to the ground near a corner. Crucis swooped down to maintain his grip on the guard's sword.

As the guard started to rise, DicingDevil knelt down and used the Ariston [Cornered] skill to place his knees on the guard's back and slam the guard's head into the corner with DicingDevil's arms locked around it. Swivelling around, DicingDevil planted his left knee on the front of the guard's rotten flesh, and withdrew his dagger to plunge it into the guard's neck. Crucis was using [Thrash] to cut loosely into the guard's arm, until he dropped the sword. As Crucis kicked it away, the guard reached out his wounded arm and easily shoved Crucis away.

However, DicingDevil began a flurry of stabs near the guard's neck, and Crucis recovered to his feet and approached. As the guard tried with difficulty to wrestle DicingDevil away, Crucis used [Stealth] and snuck around to the guard's side. Using [Half-swording], Crucis crouched down and delivered a [Lunge] deep into the guard's ear. This caused the guard to fall limp, and DicingDevil easily killed it with a [Slice] across the throat. Crucis noticed that a thin layer of black smoke had begun to rise during the battle.

In another corner of the room, Akshel had also managed to take down a guard, and was quietly disentangling himself from the guard. Grisier had noticed that DicingDevil was easily striking down one guard, so Grisier had turned to focus on helping Akshel and Dionarcy, by casting spells like [Mana Sphere], and the Cryomancer skill [Breath of Ice] which sent a paralytic chill through the guard and made it difficult for them to resist Akshel. Crucis had noticed that it was probably more effective than Spark in terms of paralytic effect, but was much less uncomfortable because it chilled the opponent in place rather than using mana to overwhelm and pacify them.

As he waited for the team to heal, Crucis considered whether the Cryomancer sub-class would be appropriate for Cael. The Cryomancer is a promising sub-class due to its ability to disrupt opponents, by manipulating the environment to produce cold. However, its damage is low and it only truly reaches its full potential around bodies of water or ice, since it can then use this cold to manipulate these. As such, it wasn't a highly popular class, except among Mages with strong melee combat abilities who want to bolster this with brief paralysis or slowing effects.

Crucis was still uncertain about which sub-class to opt for with Cael, but he saw the Cryomancy path as a slight waste of the Mage's power and his INT stat. While he had focused on upgrading his CON and DEX more with the stat points he gained from levelling during the draugr invasion, because it would improve his ability to maneouevre around freely, he still found the INT stat to be an important contributor to the power of spells. If spells were relegated to a support for his melee combat, then it could still be powerful but would not take full advantage of the spells and of his rare items like the [Illusory Quill Pen]. Still, he expected that the more cunning melee Cryomancers would eventually become highly strong fighters and difficult opponents.

Grisier, however, was a more conventional, spellcasting Cryomancer Mage. He would be quite valuable around the water, especially still bodies of water, but would gradually find his abilities less effective elsewhere. He would typically have to expend all of his MP several times over to kill a strong, healing foe, which would free up his opponents to attack him freely. However, near water or ice the sub-class would eventually gain the ability to form a strong shield out of ice, making them difficult targets at higher levels.

After the battle, Grisier had walked the room and healed everyone. Soon, DicingDevil walked over to the door.

"There will be a mini-boss as soon as we cross the half-way point of the next area. Dionarcy should take the lead, the rest of you wait for him," DicingDevil stated.

As Crucis followed the rest of the group into the door, he saw his body freeze for about 7 seconds. He tried to move around, but found that it wasn't possible. He wondered if he could cast spells. However, that would have to wait for later.

After this pause, he found himself standing on the edge of a large, empty palace courtyard paved with stone, which had eight high, white columns around its borders. Looking at these columns, he saw that they had seemingly been painted at some point with colourful scenes, but all that remained on the column to his right was two painted scenes: the first of a man with three hands holding a dulcimer and playing a lyre beside a lake, with a green, pink and white fish swimming in it, and the second of an angelic figure with wings and a glowing, white aura around them, but covered with purple-black bruises and battered until they slouched down slightly, and with blank, red eyes which were wide open.

Crucis saw that Dionarcy was slowly walking towards the other side of the courtyard, where there was an elegant white staircase built from marble. However, the group slowed to a stop as DicingDevil told them to wait for instructions. Crucis looked across the courtyard while waiting for instruction, and saw that there were a series of small, arched white gates towards a room which was draped with white curtains and filled with marble platforms. Crucis could see a shadowy silhouette near the back of the room, which looked like a woman reclining on the marble. However, it was faint and difficult to make out any further detail.

"So here's the plan," DicingDevil begun with a slight snicker, "This boss is a large, statue-esque creature covered in spikes. You can't do much damage to him when he is still a statue. You have to wait until he sheds the statue shell in order to summon two minions, who are made of cracked pieces of shadow. They have barely any HP, and go down in one hit. The boss will also occasionally release spikes along four diagonals, so watch carefully where he is facing. The easy way to do this boss is just to leave the minions alive, so let's just do that."

"When he's releasing the spikes, he will stomp a few times first. Make sure to be out of the way, or dodge if you have to," added Grisier, "Those spikes were a pain."

"Oi, don't interrupt me. I'm the authority figure here," DicingDevil replied facetiously. "Yes, try to avoid that. And don't kill the minions. Dionarcy will go up front. Akshel, stay ready to attsck the boss once their armour is off. Grisier at the back, Crucis and I can attack the minion mobs. Remember, don't kill them, just block and dodge their strikes."

Crucis nodded, and the rest of the group walked into formation. As Dionarcy walked half-way up the courtyard, the ground in front of him burst and an array of stony spikes burst through. As the boss settled above the ground, Crucis saw that it appeared to be a large statue of a male with a lance and a gutsy, short female standing back-to-back with him and wielding a cutlass. However, the statue had been corrupted by an array of spikes that had grown over it like barnacles, and hid most of the statue's figures. Underneath the statue, Crucis could hear a monster's heavy breathing.

Red text over the monster's name indicated that its name was [Statue Faux], a level 48 opponent.

The monster flung its lance towards Dionarcy, but he comfortably blocked it with his sword. Seemingly frustrated, the boss stomped its feet three times. Crucis moved straight in front of the monster, and noticed the rest of the group also moving away from the diagonals. An array of spikes broke through the ground in four lines, then sat there for a few seconds like a stream of protruding nettles. This did not damage the team, and soon it disappeared, leaving cracks in the ground. Crucis spread to the side again.

The monster now threw the female's cutlass at Dionarcy, but this was blocked. However, the boss used [Ghost - Female], and a young female with curly, bobbing hair appeared, coloured a transparent, uniform grey, and took the cutlass to slash at Dionarcy. While he parried this, her frantic strikes soon struck his chest and sent him careering backwards. She advanced again, but this time Dionarcy used his shield to block the assault, and struck back with a [Slash]. The female faded away.

Crucis supposed that this ghost had been an attempt to instill a sense of urgency into players, so that when the boss' minions spawned the players would kill them as soon as possible rather than risk another fervent attack. This might easily confuse a new team in the dungeon and make the boss fight more tense.

Regardless, after the ghost faded, the cutlass clattered to the ground. As the sound rang out across the courtyard, Crucis saw a swift movement in the nearby room filled with white curtains, with a shadow-like shape flitting away. The monster let out a high-pitched, pained cry, and the statue broke into many fragments to reveal a bleeding, gory pink humanoid form. The fragments quickly, but messily, re-arranged into two monsters named [Broken Statue Beast], which were composed on fragments of the broken statue clumsily collected together. The creatures moved clumsily, but Crucis saw that the one in front of him held the cutlass between two pieces of stone, and the one next to DicingDevil held the lance.

As the [Broken Statue Beast] lunged for Crucis, he stepped back and parried. It slowly attempted a wide slash towards him, but he used [Dodge Step] to backstep safely out of range. As it lugged itself towards him, he tentatively used [Slash] while aiming away from it, and it parried this blow. He had beeen prelaring for this, so he used [Hard] pressure to push back against the creature's sword and disrupted its intended riposte by pushing it aside until it flailed off-target. He made a [Feint] strike towards the right, then abandoned it and backstepped again out of range.

In this time, Akshel and Dionarcy had set upon the strange, pink form, which was now lying weakly on the ground. Dionarcy kept his shield hovering over it to prevent its occasional attempts to lurch up and strike its opponents, while Akshel held its arm by the wrist and stabbed hard around its head. Its HP was going down slowly, but had now declined to 75%.

The monster tried another diagonal spike attack across the room, but Crucis easily tucked out of the affected area.

The [Broken Statue Beast] seemed weakened by the monster's plight, and its sword spiralled confusedly towards Crucis. Crucis smiled and used [Circle spin] to twirl his sword in a movement closely following the creature's blade, then initiated a [Wheel Strike Sequence] and set off a chain of swirling strikes that made contact with the creature's cutlass but did not approach actually attacking the creature. These strikes still made the sword slip out between the two stony statue fragments that the creature was using to hold it, causing their hold on it to get looser. Arrogantly, Crucis twirled his sword in a wide [Circle spin] around the opponent's wavering sword, knowing that the creature would probably be disarmed if it tried to weakly attack past his blade and was deflected into the blade's whirling motion.

However, the creature did not attack. Hence, as the [Circle spin] ended, Crucis stepped forwards and used [Sword hold] to grab the creature's wobbling cutlass. It still tried to dislodge Crucis' grip, but in the process its sword came loose. In desperation, one of the stony spikes along its side tore off, and it wielded this as a sword in the place where this spike had previously been lodged. Crucis saw that this had reduced the boss' HP by 4%, and the boss was now down to 25% HP after strenuous effort.

Crucis used [Parry] as the spike struck at him, but was surprised when contact with his sword caused the brittle spike to dent. He made a [Feint] to the right, then, as the creature raised its spike horizontally to block, he flicked his wrist and used [Thrash] downwards on the spike until it broke in two after three harsh cuts. The [Thrash] skill was often used for cutting away obstacles such as vines, so it was easy to target the spike with it.

The creature wielded its half-broken spike weakly, and tried in desperation to strike Crucis with it. However, it was easy for Crucis to stay out of the creature's range, backstepping carefully and dodging any of the boss' spikes. He saw that DicingDevil had not disarmed the creature, but was parrying its attacks fiercely before unleashing a [Feint] and retreating. As one of DicingDevil's aggressive parries slipped forwards and struck the creature, it faded and half of the statue re-appeared around the boss' feet. However, it was easy for Akshel, Dionarcy and Grisier to target the rest of the boss, which was still exposed and now down to 10% HP. Half of the statue would not save the boss now.

Crucis used [Dodge Step] as the [Broken Statue Beast] neared, and it easily struck short of him. He continued back-stepping, with occasional feints and missed slashes to put the creature on the defensive, until he heard a loud, low-pitched wail as the boss died. The [Broken Statue Beast] fell apart into the many fragments of statue, and this fell to the ground before disappearing. Crucis saw that he had reached level 55 from the EXP.

The team congratulated each other, then walked towards the stairs. However, they were surprised by the loud flutter of wings as two bats emerged from the door above the stairs. They were both at level 40, and named [Guardian Bat].

They approached the group, and DicingDevil began striking at one with a hard, fast [Slash]. Akshel grabbed a hold of its wing, and stabbed at it harshly.

As one of the bats neared Crucis, he saw Grisier cast [Breath of Ice] on the bat, which slowed in mid-flight. Crucis teed up and easily batted it out of the sky with a firm [Overhead slash], then knelt down and used [Half-swording] to stab towards the bat's neck and head with a [Lunge]. The bat died bleeding, with its face locked eerily between a scream and a wide smile.

Akshel had also managed to quickly kill the other bat, using a dagger. These enemies weren't as firm as the mini-bosses, and to Crucis they provided a brief rest before the next set of battles.

The group ascended the stairs, and entered the doorway, each one freezing slightly before entering. They were nearly at the throne room.

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MOROSE

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