The Heart is a Void: Ashes to Ashes

by

MOROSE

Chapter 60: Boss fight! A King With No Crown

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"As soon as we got near, the creature started banging against the door," DicingDevil said, "It's probably going to try attacking as soon as we open the door."

Crucis heard a loud, persistent thud from the door towards the round room.

"Do you think it can get here if we block the door?" Akshel asked.

"Probably, especially if it uses the iron nail," Grisier replied.

"Blocking the door could still be useful," Crucis said, "because we could get some early strikes in to stack the [Bleeding] effect. Fighting this boss normally would be difficult, but if we can get it to the ground and have Akshel hold it there, then we should be able to slowly whittle its HP away. If it's an even fight, then it outdamages us significantly, but if it's striking a piñata then it's doable in the time we have left."

"Can we set up a trap at the entrance?" DicingDevil mused.

"There's a small fountain near where the hag boss stood," Akshel replied, "I picked up a [Pewter Goblet] from the statue fight, do you reckon that we could pick up some water to help with Grisier's spells? Maybe he could make, like, a wall of ice or something."

"Can't make a sturdy ice wall yet," Grisier said. "But yeah, if you pick that up, I could at least form a small stalagtite on the top of the door, which can stun the creature for a second as it tries to pass through."

Akshel nodded, then jogged off to pick up some water. After a few minutes, he returned, and placed the [Pewter Goblet] on the ground a few metres away from the door.

Dionarcy, Akshel and Crucis lined up behind the door, while DicingDevil stood to its right in order to strike the creature as it attempted to enter. Grisier hung a few steps back and prepared to cast spells once the creature showed itself.

DicingDevil carefully turned the door's handle until it unlocked, then let go as he felt a strong pressure forcing the door open from the other side. Crucis, who was positioned right behind the door's opening, saw a pile of burnt, twisted flesh pushing hard against the door, and for a moment he couldn't make out where the Man-Bird's head was. Activating his skeletal necklace, he struck with [The Ripper], making a quick cut across the creature's rash-covered face. He saw that the creature had received two stacks of the [Bleeding] status effect, and one more once DicingDevil struck with a [Ripper] of his own.

Dionarcy was heaving against the door from near its hinges, and the combined effort of the three was enough to slow the door's opening. However, the creature was still making steady progress, although Crucis and DicingDevil were peppering it with stabs and cuts. Most of these strikes were dealing less than 1% of the creature's HP in damage, but the [Bleeding] effect was steadily sapping the boss' HP and had soon reduced them to 90% HP. Black mist was settling slowly across the room.

Grisier began to cast [Minor Stalagtite], and Crucis saw the water from the goblet fly up and turn into ice clinging firmly to the top of the door. When the creature released the pressure on the door slightly, in order to reach for a rusty iron nail, Grisier released the stalagtite, which struck the creature's head and stunned it briefly. However, this stun made the creature lose its balance, as it had been pushing forwards too heavily and its withered feet were twisted until they couldn't support its forwards-leaning body, and so it fell heavily into the door. Crucis and the other two players behind the door were surprised by the sudden force pressing against the door, and Dionarcy began to stumble slightly.

"Let go!" DicingDevil commanded.

Crucis let go of the door, and as the creature fell forwards he held his dagger to the back of its neck to pressure it down. Akshel quickly ran up, and loosely grabbed the creature's neck from behind, pulling it to the ground with him. As the creature struggled to break loose, Grisier used the remaining water to power up a strengthened [Breath of Ice], which firmly straitjacketed the creature in place while Akshel locked its right arm and neck in place, then used his legs to restrain the Man-Bird's weak legs. Crucis and DicingDevil helped with [Stunning Dagger] attacks, and Dionarcy smothered the creature's upper body beneath his large shield to prevent it from moving.

Held in this position, the Man-Bird was unable to escape from the bind. Crucis assailed it from the left with a mixture of [The Ripper] and stabs near the neck, and his accuracy increased slightly with each attack. DicingDevil also assissted from the creature's other flank, with firm strikes which drew blood from the Man-Bird's rashed skin. Crucis soon found that strikes across the Man-Bird's rashes had the chance to create multiple stacks of [Bleeding], and so as his accuracy increased he began to slice roughly along these rashes. After seven minutes, the dungeon boss was down to 60% HP, and was covered in a mass of blood.

However, Crucis saw white text appear next to the boss, saying [Blinding Fate]. As he inched back slightly, an aura of light began to emanate from around the boss, throwing the players around him harshly into the corners of the room. Since Crucis had made some distance from the boss, he was thrown back lightly and managed to keep his footing as his feet skidded towards the door. He drew his sword. As the creature slowly trudged towards Akshel, who was lying bruised by a wall after being launched painfully across the floor, Crucis struck at its back with a [Lunge].

The creature growled angrily, and turned towards Crucis. As it leapt towards him with arm outstretched, he backstepped and struck at it with a [Slash] from his right, which struck a gash that DicingDevil had carved across its arm. The creature flinched back as the blow threw his arm to the side, and Crucis remained within a reasonable distance. He knew that, due to the [Nightmare] effect, the creature's ventures forwards could be met with accurate strikes targetting the many injuries coating the creature's body.

However, the creature persisted, and leapt again towards Crucis. He struck it with an [Overhead slash] across the face, but it kept approaching until Grisier sent it blowing away with a [Mana Strike] which sent the creature flying into a corner. As Crucis' allies began to approach the creature, it once again began to glow with the halo of light from [Blinding Fate], brightly illuminating the room as it stood like a disfigured angel with its arms spread out and its 'wings' of torn flesh hanging down majestically while bathed in the light.

While the group tried to keep its distance, Akshel started towards the creature as he saw it withdraw a [Rusty Nail] from a pocket. However, the aura of light around the creature exploded, sending Akshel flying across the room, landing heavily in a corner. By the time that this explosion had faded, the Man-Bird had torn a thick gash in its shoulder with the [Rusty Nail].

Dionarcy moved forwards to protect the group, but the Man-Bird effortlessly sent the warrior's shield clattering to the ground with a [Claw Flail]. As it grabbed Dionarcy with a [Torn Claw Grip] to the chest, Crucis forced it away with a forceful [Lunge] which pierced easily through the creature's neck. The creature tossed Dionarcy to the side, and menacingly advanced towards Crucis. As Crucis attempted a [Slash], the creature batted it away with one arm.

DicingDevil attempted to intervene, but the Man-Bird shoved him harshly across the room. Crucis had made some distance by now from the boss, but the boss once again took a step forwards and was frozen in mid-step, then began moving quickly in Crucis' direction. Crucis, however, had been expecting it this time, and waited until the Man-Bird had almost reached him before using [Stealth Cloak] and side-stepping out of the boss' path. As the Man-Bird heavily swung an arm at where Crucis had been standing, Crucis re-appeared behind him.

With a firm [Lunge], Crucis struck at the creature's spine and caused it to lean forwards. He tried to send it back down to the ground with a [Forceful Kick], but the creature swiftly turned around and caught Crucis' foot in mid-air. Crucis managed to [Slash] at the creature's arms, setting his own leg free, but he was still too close to the Man-Bird.

The boss leapt, almost gliding, towards Crucis, then grabbed his shoulder with a [Torn Claw Grip]. The creature's fingernails sunk into Crucis' shoulder as blood spurted up around them, and he clenched his teeth as the 'claws' sunk deeper. He managed a [Lunge] which stabbed right through the creature's neck, but the boss was seemingly unfazed. It shoved Crucis harshly against a wall, and Crucis saw the words [Wing Flutter] appear as the creature stared him down with wild eyes. Before the creature could begin striking him, he fell quickly to the ground, and hacked at the creature's ankles with [Thrash] until the creature fell forwards against the wall.

As Crucis rolled out of the way, Akshel attempted to get a grip on the fallen creature. However, it elbowed Akshel firmly in the face, then followed up with a [Claw Flail] across the face to send Akshel sprawling backwards. Crucis could see that Grisier was having little luck with his magic, as the creature was easily shrugging off Grisier's spells. At Grisier's request, DicingDevil had run off to get more water for Grisier.

As the creature once again began hurtling towards Crucis without taking any steps, Crucis used [Feint] to feign a [Slash], but instead used [Dodge Step] to backstep out of range as the creature lunged forwards with one arm. As the monster regrouped and leapt at Crucis, he used [Agile Step] to side-step out of the way, and deftly brought his sword upwards to slash across the Man-Bird's face mid-leap. The creature collapsed to the ground. However, it leapt to its feet before Crucis could attack it further. He was still stalling for time, because the effect of the [Rusty Nail] would soon run out.

The creature backed Crucis towards the corner next to the door, but he activated [Speed Demon] and [Stealth Cloak], and maneouevred his way towards the centre of the room, where a winded Akshel was also getting to his feet with a bloodied face. DicingDevil re-entered, and carefully placed a [Pewter Goblet] down. As the monster once again approached Crucis swiftly, he attempted another [Feint], this time of a [Lunge] to the throat. The creature hesitated, and Crucis back-tracked until he was near the goblet. The creature once again began to move quickly, and as Crucis saw it attempt a [Swoop Lunge] leap towards him, he made a [Dodge Step] backwards.

However, the creature seemed to keep hanging in the air, and continued approaching him until his back was against the wall. The creature had its arms spread to the sides, with its 'wings' of loose flesh swelling out as if in flight, and it would be difficult to get out of the way given the speed of the Man-Bird's motion. Seeing no other good choice, Crucis grabbed the creature in a [Chokehold] and used its momentum to leap towards the wall alongside it. It grabbed his chest in a [Torn Claw Grip] as they neared the wall. Both of them crashed hard against the wall, and Crucis cried out as his chest and shoulders collapsed into an array of bleeding, shattered skin and bruises. He collapsed to the ground, but, fuelled by adrenaline, scampered away from the creature before it could strike at him further.

As he looked back, he saw that Grisier had been able to use the nearby water to paralyse the creature with [Breath of Ice], allowing Akshel to get a firm grip on the creature from behind. DicingDevil had assisted with a [Stunning Dagger], and was now using [Ripper] to deepen the boss' bleeding wounds. Crucis had attempted to lure the creature towards the water, since it would become easier for Grisier to target it with spells.

As it struggled in Akshel's grip, Grisier cast [Ice Heart], using the water to form a thin layer of ice that curled into a sphere and then projecting this towards the Man-Bird's chest, where the sphere shattered and released a burst of freezing Cryomantic energy. The resulting cold shocked the creature and gave it the [Chilled] status effect, which slowed its movement and caused damage to it every time it attempted a skill. Crucis guessed that this spell had converted Grisier's mana into a form which produced a strong, chilling cold, and wondered if there was any way for a non-Cryomancer to replicate this form of mana.

As the rest of the team hacked at the Man-Bird until it reached 30% HP, Crucis slowly got to his feet, and saw that he had 40% HP left. This creature's strength during the [Rusty Nail] phase was high enough to deal high damage easily, but this effect had by now ended. Grisier healed Crucis back to 60% HP, and Crucis walked tiredly towards the Man-Bird, then knelt down and drew a dagger. As he used [The Ripper], he slowly cut a thick gash across one of the creature's rashes, following exactly along with the rash until it turned into a river of blood. The result of this fine cut was three stacks of bleeding.

"Do you think the thing will try another [Blinding Fate]?" Grisier asked from a distance.

"That attack gave him some sort of aura, but he's done with it now," DicingDevil said, "I think it exploded. That started when it was at 40% HP, so keep an eye on him when he reaches further HP milestones: 20%, 10%, etc."

No further abilities of this sort appeared, as the group slowly whittled down the boss' HP. If it threatened to break out of Akshel's grip, Crucis and DicingDevil kept their [Stunning Dagger] skills saved up until Akshel could consolidate. After 5 more minutes, the boss was finally down to 5% HP. However, the group was surprised when the boss, facing upwards with ambitious eyes, proclaimed, "I built a Paradise on Earth, our court, our nation. Yet you would not let it spread its wings."

The group was suddenly propelled away again, without any notice that the boss had intended an attack. However, Crucis saw that the boss' HP was still depleting due to the stacks of [Bleeding]. As the boss reached for another [Rusty Nail], Crucis bounded up quickly, and stabbed the boss firmly with an accurate [Stunning Dagger] to the throat. Crucis noticed that his own skin now appeared to have returned to the familiar [Nightmare] form with black scales and an empty void for a face, but now with a large, black hood behind his head, like a cobra.

Amused, Crucis fluttered his hood lightly at each side, mocking the Man-Bird's wings, and delivered a sharp [Black Spot] across a rash on the creature's neck as it was paralysed. Seeming angered, the creature attempted to grab Crucis by the hood as he turned away, but its hands passed through empty air. Crucis comfortably turned around, and sliced quickly with [The Ripper] across a deep gash on the back of the creature's hand. While [The Ripper] against a low-HP opponent was typically a slower, more methodical cut, he had found that it also had the option to use the typical, faster motion associated with [Ripper], if in a rush. The creature's hand flinched back.

As the creature attempted to lurch forwards towards Crucis again, it was stopped in its tracks by DicingDevil, who had placed it in a [Chokehold] from behind. Akshel pierced it firmly with a sword to its side, and soon the Man-Bird died due to the damage dealt by stacks of the [Bleeding] effect.

Crucis saw a dungeon clearance message appear in the air in front of the group, saying:

[Dungeon Complete!

You have slain the Final Boss of this dungeon. Congratulations.

Progress:

Statue Faux - Slain.
Rotting Wyvern - Not encountered.
Night Hag Concubine - Slain.
Final Boss: The King - Slain.

Optional Boss - Not encountered.

You may now leave, or augment your time in the dungeon by one hour if you wish to face the optional boss. All mini-bosses will now have disappeared, even if you have skipped them.]

"I'll give us an extra hour, we might as well have a go at the optional boss now, it can barely be worse than that thing," DicingDevil said, as he navigated the options in the party leadership menu.

"Looks like it counted this Man-Bird creature as the King, which is why we just got completion," Grisier said calmly, "So that seems to further confirm that it was the King. Not a very regal look."

"Do we have any idea what he was doing with those rusty nails? They seemed to power him up, but the game wasn't letting me check what they were. Without them, we were overpowering him easily," Akshel replied.

"I don't know, but I'm told that cutting your life into pieces is a good last resort," Crucis replied flippantly.

"Cunning of him," Akshel said. "Without the iron nails and near-invulnerability, this boss would have probably been really easy, probably even easier than the original King."

"Definitely," DicingDevil replied, "especially given its capacity for self-mutilation. Anyway, rest up, guys. We'll make our way downstairs and fight the Undead Queen next. It looks like I've reached level 58 already, but more EXP can't hurt, right?"

The EXP from killing the Man-Bird was high, and combined with the dungeon clearance rewards it was just enough to raise Crucis to level 57. He sat back against one wall of the room, as Grisier walked around healing the group. The rest of the group also sat down to rest, spreading across the room, and began to discourse in order to, "charm pain for a while or anguish," and prepare for the next boss. As an aside, it is perhaps easier to speak and charm pain than it is to speak and charm sense out of Trinitarianism.

"The boss dropped a letter or something," Akshel said, looking through his inventory. He read aloud from a small, crumpled piece of paper marked as [King Ganféan's credo].

"People marvel at my riches and conquests. But I feel impatient with the riches and gifts that people bring to me after each conquest. I came here for power over this world. The riches were merely to signify my power. However, people who wish to create an absolute dichotomy are ignorant.

"Worldly power is not some abstract, spiritual pursuit. It must be grasped with both hands, you must throw your body across the Earth or its reins will throw you off. There are infinite concerns that mark the running of a Kingdom, from the trade in rare materials to the construction of palaces and the government of a vast citizenry. At each turn, there are great expectations. These tasks require passion and motivation, which comes from earthly desire. The man who truly seeks such power is the man of desire.

"A man without this will not smear himself upon the world and seek strenuously to grasp it for himself, and the man who makes history like this has become a part of society's great march onwards and is no more than this. What history is there, without trade, economy, society, commodities, the commonwealth? History is a function of these, the great man is typically just a lever which they use. The great are the hedonistic slaves of these things, the more that they seek their own greatness."

"That's interesting, so his intention was earthly power, but desire eventually overcame him as a result? He has a point, they are often linked," Grisier said.

"He's not wrong," Crucis said. "A King is deeply immersed in the Kingdom and the world around him. Who believes in more illusions than Kings? Perhaps an earnest Priest - but those are rare. The man who would be King is a person who is riddled with enough desire to span a Kingdom."

"Yes. I suppose that the rigours of being King may have surprised this necromancer, since he was seemingly expecting some form of dramatic adventure at first."

"It's a frequent illusion, the desire to treat society and social power as just a setting or tool for your own hopes. Aristocracy isn't really about one person's ambition, it's a form of society which merely self-perpetuates. People think that society is a setting for their own grand adventure, in truth they just become its servants. In aristocratic systems, there's no worth in building up because all you build is just a 'part of the main,' only in tearing things down."

"Aristocratic systems like this game?" DicingDevil laughed.

"Precisely. If you're trapped in a game which is a story packaged up and offered to whales, a hero's journey which has been bought and sold, then the most that you can do is to kill the whales, because you can't build your own Church on their rock."

"That's true. But if the rock is corrupt, why not tear down everyone whose Church is built on it? They will also be corrrupted."

"Why not, indeed? Build gravestones, rather than Churches. Sometimes we have to accept precariousness, because the alternative is being tied to a stone crucifix."

The group slowly got up and prepared to go downstairs. Before beginning the journey downwards, Crucis and Akshel were nominated to run to the Throne Room and check if anything had dropped there due to the King's death.

By the time they arrived, chunks of the room's high walls were already collapsing down on themselves, and the room looked like it would probably be in ruins shortly. Akshel, who seemed familiar with this situation, darted to the centre of the room and picked up a broken sceptre which had dropped there. As a result, each member of the group gained a [Royal Sceptre Shard], an item which could be turned in to a fortune-teller in exchange for a chance at a rare item.

As they left the Throne Room behind, Crucis was surprised when the light from the high windows dimmed noticeably. Glancing up, he saw a sleek black silhouette passing quickly upwards across a window, with what looked like two fiery, glowing eyes, but didn't manage to notice any further details before the shape was out of sight. He did, however, notice a loud, haphazard knocking sound coming from the roof, as if somebody was jumping across it. He noticed Akshel looking up too, with a slightly concerned expression.

A chandelier on the roof started to glow with a slight blue light, which rippled like a candle, and Crucis could hear the sound of celebratory hoots from the rooftop, as well as the laughter-infused, rasping scream, "Justice has been done!" The knocking on the roof started to move its way above the Throne Room, where Crucis was surprised to see a black hand grasp one of the chandeliers - which was also now tinted blue - and throw it violently towards the throne.

The chandelier exploded into a large, blue mist, and the throne was shattered into thousands of pieces which dropped lifelessly to the ground. The hand then grabbed a painting of the King, kept in one corner of the Throne Room, and battered it against the wall until it tore. Crucis heard a crude laughter as a pair of black hands spread the two sides of the painting out like wings, then beat them hard against the wall until they broke into pieces and began to fall to the ground.

As the figure threw the remains of the battered painting away across the room, it let out a piercing cry, "The King is dead! Long live the King!"

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A note from MOROSE

Title is inspired by this song, which is appropriate in retrospect.


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MOROSE

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