I was a survivor.
The apocalypse had killed me countless times, it had taken… things from me. My peace of mind, my ignorance of hardship. It stole my illusion of potential happiness. It had stripped every layer of my morals, my mind, and my body. Challenged me with unbearable torment, pain, and agony.
It had broken me, thrown me the pieces, and demanded I make something of myself or die.
I whispered to myself, inaudible. “You’ve already decided, Evahn,” I said. “Never again.”
And all of me moved. I stood, the original, beside Rose and an unconscious Rickson. The rest of me charged forward.
We would fight here. Parker’s strength was incredible, he matched the thing for a glorious moment. A moment against a van-sized behemoth. It wasn’t just his stats, but whatever effect of his Skill too.
Then it found purchase and roared, the sheer weight of its body enough to throw him off.
Sixth retrieved the [Twilight Saber] from Eighth, looking at him looking at me. I nodded to myself, both ways. He was dying, bleeding internally from a punctured lung, wheezing. I felt it all. He had a perfect view of the beast.
That was for the best. That was all I needed.
“Evahn! You’re supposed to be running!” Parker yelled, eyes bulging once he saw me—all three of me. Sixth, Seventh, and Ninth rushed forward. The beast roared and he was thrown into a roll, kicking up dirt and soil. His head swung up to glare at me. “Get the hell out of here!” He yelled. “Escape with Rose and Rickson! With your clones, you could—”
I didn’t stop running, didn’t pause. “You don’t get to sacrifice yourself here, Parker! You don’t decide that!” I yelled at him, dashing forward. My face was a mixture of rage and focus, a dichotomy. Whichever clone it was, he grinned. “I’m the better sacrifice anyway!”
I felt the limb before it even manifested, a partial form change, a second prehensile whipping at me. I caught its arc, severing the thing. The creature roared, moonlight blood pouring from an open wound.
I slashed again, finding the soft flesh between its armored plates. The other clones harried it, distracting. They created openings, dancing between its attacks, dodging what only another clone could see.
“We’re all getting out of here. Alive.” I growled, pacing. Three of me circling like vultures.
Parker groaned, getting up. His clothes were torn from debris, and though it looked superficial, he was still bleeding. “Then get behind me! Damn it.”
The creature reared, charged. And its head was forced to the ground by a blast of fire.
“Rickson and I did not slave for two whole days for us to throw our lives away!” Rose stood at a distance, eyes somehow burning brighter than her fire. She staggered but Sixth was there, helping her.
Anger momentarily burned away whatever fatigue she’d built up. “[Lesser Shield]! [Firebolt]!” And a wayward ghost evaporated in a plume of fire.
“Rose!” Parker grimaced. “Someone needs to take Rickson—” He punched another sunlight wraith, vaporizing it.
“I can’t, Parker!” She said, that dead-tired exhaustion making itself known. She was breathless, just from talking. “We’re caught! We can’t run from this thing, look where that got us! We make a stand here or die trying!”
I stood near her, guarding Rickson. It was true, we couldn’t move at this pace safely. And to slow down would be to die. There were already creatures inching up. I had killed another two ifrits, shadows dancing at the edges of the treeline, eyeing Rickson.
Parker didn’t respond—he couldn’t. He dodged the battering ram that was the beast. Eighth saw him pivot, turn and watched his entire arm blur. [Power Strike]. The twilight beast lurched. And I was already moving into a blindspot, dodging every patch of soil I felt dangerously within its reach.
A clone distracted another spiked limb, ducking under its fatal point. Another supported parker, acting as bait. And—
My sword tasted blood again, plunging into its flank, away from the armored plates. Non-lethal, but damage nonetheless. Silver light built up again, blinding. Parker slammed into the beast, heedless of the danger and its focus faltered, silver moonlight dissipating. He drove his fist into its gut repeatedly, every strike eliciting pained roars.
The clones flitted about like annoying flies. There were places of soft moonlight flesh. I couldn’t tell if my fists had any effect on the creature but when given the opportunity I took the chance. Not as effective as my [Twilight Saber] but enough to serve as a distraction.
I stabbed it again. And again.
Silver liquid leaked, spreading across the floor like a mercury pool. Shining blood, staining our clothes, painting us in moonlight gore. Parker accelerated, for just bare moments, to match the beast’s overwhelming strength. I danced between its blind spots, using my enhanced perception and instinct, finding every opening made. Drawing blood, more and more.
Even then, it took its pound in flesh. Its shifting was somehow limited, maybe from its own injuries, maybe from us occupying its focus. Still, it had enough leeway for potentially lethal counters. Let alone its sheer mass.
A barbed spike to the shoulder, a serrated section of its flesh, sharp plates. The blunt end of its tail. Parker and I suffered them all, sometimes a flash of some shimmering barrier would spare us the wound, sometimes not. We didn’t stop. We couldn’t. My clones tired, slowing.
But I felt Rose’s [Lesser Shield] upon me. Blunting sharp edges that should’ve drawn blood. Mitigating damage that I should’ve taken. A cracked bone instead of a broken one. A small cut instead of gored flesh.
And if ever it had a moment to rest, a [Firebolt] exploded against its face.
The clones fell into a rhythm. No, they were consumed by it. Fatigue, injury, focus, their mind had only the capacity for one thing. My clones were marionettes, puppeted by instinct, by a watcher at the treeline with an overview of the entire fight.
I had my own problems to deal with, defending both Rose and Rickson. Creatures of twilight, dawn, and dusk, inching at the perimeter of the fight. Waiting like scavengers, sometimes fighting their own. The clones didn’t bother with them. Anything that inched too close would catch fire, bursting into flame. Rose’s work.
I watched from the sidelines, dealing with most confident of them trying to sneak up on Rose. Sixth and Seventh had their own bloodbath, taking bare fists and body against the elemental. Fighting in tandem, keeping the [Twilight Elemental] within their vision as much as possible.
Eighth, dying, watched from the opposite end of the battlefield. The battle consumed me, if only that part of me. The clones pushed their physical capabilities to the limit. Minds in overdrive, watching everything, understanding the flow of the battle, aware of everything. Living on the very edge of their lives.
I slashed, stabbed, hacked, plunged, and tore at the beast. Mechanical. Yet somehow artful, the way my blade was coated in the moonlight. The way my body was. The splatter upon Parker’s face, the flowers blossoming from the liquid life.
I moved without fear of death, only aware of its consequence. A false mechanism. They—I—knew I could die. That fear, that knowledge, brought my focus to razor’s edge. And yet, I’d died so many times, I balanced upon that edge with mastery beyond what anyone could hope to match.
Another [Power Strike]. Another roar, this time from Parker. Something cracked. Snapped. A rib, a piece of moonlight, shattered. And the noise of agony elicited from the beast was all too familiar. I’d screamed it myself countless times. The clones focused on its bruised areas, where the twilight body dimmed, relentless striking it whenever the chance arose.
It struggled to move at this point. We all did. Parker’s chest rose like a piston, heavy, fast. Steam came off of him, the pale rays of moonlight shining down, reflective on the blood covering us. The fatigue threatened the collapse of my clones. I was breathing just as hard, gasping in the end, fighting off the rest of the [Sleepywood] with my bare fists and stats.
I realized the creature had shrunk. Somehow, its blood, that liquid moonlight, had been like a leak in a balloon. It was made of moonlight and twilight, and it had been bleeding ever since the first stab. Parts of it were now dim, like broken smoky glass, darkened and dulled beyond any recognition of light or relief of shadow. Brittle.
Its death wasn’t climactic. It was a slow bleed. A drawn-out thing. In fighting it, we were forced to retreat, reposition and move. It felt neither victorious nor triumphant once Parker stomped on its head, ending the beast in a visceral splash of shattered light.
There was only a sense of relief. And the irony, once we realized the stone formations nearby were familiar. The exit. We had fought all the way here, somehow. Rose was collapsed against the stone, Rickson unconscious nearby but unharmed.
Parker and my exhausted selves stood, catching our breath, watching flowers bloom, drinking in the moonlight. A cool breeze caressed us, like a comb of wind through the woods. A deep exhale of the [Sleepywood].
The dungeon notices came like an afterthought, a hysterical aside. A polite, unobtrusive reminder of rewards merited for simply surviving. As if simply existing in this world warranted praise. A mark of this twisted thing I knew as reality.
[Dungeon Notice]: For defeating the Area Boss, [Twilight Elemental], your group is rewarded four [Unusual Chests]!
[Dungeon Notice]: Congratulations! As you are the first group to explore the [Sleepywood] all [Unusual Chest] rewards have been upgraded to [Scarce Twilight Chests]!
I raised my head. A part of me registering it was over.
[Notice]: You have leveled up multiple times: Level 25!
Eventually, I found myself walking to one of the chests, utterly exhausted. “Parker? Rose?”
Parker looked at me, heaving. Rose looked up, eyes barely staying open, completely slumped.
“Let’s get the fuck out of here.”