Urock wedged his green hand into the cavern wall, ensuring he wouldn't fall into the lava far below. A silvery halo drifted along the ledge above him. The critter within the light turned its head and sniffed, its long teeth meant for chewing rock... or armor. When it turned back to the path, its whiskers cast thin shadows through the light, and Urock released the breath he'd been holding. This one kill could change everything. It was worth a thousand others.
Urock activated [Shattered Remnants] and [Magic Weapon] simultaneously.
A shadowy goblin formed on the ledge above, at first indistinct but then taking the form of an archer. The female figure drew a massive bow while Urock channeled a spear from glowing blue energy.
Once ready, Urock pulled the weapon behind his head, feeling an elastic pull, and threw, magical bands slingshotting his arm forward and guiding the motion. At the same time, the archer released her arrow. The rat screeched, jumping clear of both attacks.
"Damn you!" Urock muttered as it scurried away.
Urock shifted into the archer's viewpoint. After adjusting to the different perspective, he retrieved an arrow from his waist, drew the great shadow bow, and released it all in one clean motion. His skill, sharp eyes, and the way his hands flicked for another arrow before the first even landed, were not attributes of his own.
These were the skills of Runa, his mother that was no more.
Despite Runa's near-perfect aim, the rat dodged the first shot and the next. At this rate, it would get away, but he couldn't let that happen. Urock pulled his Mana into the negatives to summon a second remnant. The normally blue indicator of his Mana shifted red, and his Health began to bleed down.
The second shadowy figure, his brother Ninjeck, spawned in front of the rat and used a massively muscled arm to swing a Halberg. The rat dodged the sweeping strike, sending pebbles falling below. Ninjeck dropped the weapon, reached into his pocket, and threw a goopy substance. It splattered upon the critter, sticking it to the wall. Urock grinned. His next shot hit the rat square in the head.
+10 damage! Level 1 rat (Ultra Rare XP) killed!
"Good work, brother..." Urock whispered sadly.
An abrupt force jerked him back into his body, and he found himself hanging painfully by one arm. His normally dark green skin was ashen, and blood trickled down his nose. He tried to move his free arm, but it felt asleep. His whole body had lost function. Where was the XP!? His wedged hand began to slip out of the crack he'd wedged it into. Was this how he died? Perhaps it was time. If not for the hate driving him he was ready to give up. He was so damn tired. He closed his eyes, waiting to fall to his death.
A silvery light flooded into his body, feeding him strength.
You're now level 16!
Right before his hand slipped, his Health bounced back. He grabbed onto a handhold with his free hand, heart pounding. He bumped his head against the wall. What was wrong with him?
He sighed, then set his jaw. So long that he had his purpose, he had a reason to live. What he'd done today was reckless and unstainable, but he was desperate. Maybe after all this time, the dungeon would finally choose him.
A bright orb zipped past his head. "Wow! Did you see the teeth on that thing?"
Urock tried to ignore the wisp as he climbed down.
June flashed into existence, inches in front of his face. "Well!" Urock jerked, nearly losing his grip. "Why aren't you happy?" June asked. "You got a level didn't you?"
"Yes, I got a level." Urock braced himself and leaped to the level stone of the entrance.
"Oh," she said, bobbing up and down.
Great, maybe she was finally getting the message that he didn't want her around.
Dusting himself off, Urock pulled up his Soulcore. The sphere hovered before him, white light piercing the cracks of its shadowy surface, glowing blue words wrapped around it in a hundred different ways. When he looked closer, they arranged into a display.
Level 16 Soulcore of a Blackened Heart
+1 stat points
Magic Weapon (IV): Summon a magical weapon that deals 10 > 15 damage + base weapon DMG. Molding unlocked. 50 Mana cost.
What was Molding? He'd have to test it later on.
Shattered Remnants (II):
90 > 110 Mana locked to summon.
Remnants can now incorporate Magic Weapon, equaling its damage + base weapon DMG (current total=25), instead of your physical weapon alone.
For all that he might have expected from this level that boost went far beyond.
You're driven by hatred and consumed by grief. +1 to all stats when depressed! (You're depressed)
A Soulcore simply reflected who a person was and granted strengths and weaknesses based upon that. Even then, Urock found it cruel. When he first used [Shattered Remants], his mother had appeared. He didn't use it again for months. Why would someone want to be reminded of the people they'd lost? Well, when enough time passed, it was a way to see them again. At least a shadow of who they were, a remnant, a shattered remnant of his heart.
Sighing, he pulled up his stat sheet and placed the point into Magic, raising it to 18 and his Mana to 180. He now had an impressive 43.2 Mana/Energy Shield regen per minute. While fighting level 1 rats, he'd never needed the shield, but he knew how effective it could be against the delvers.
He took in the vast space, remembering the thousands of hours he'd spent training. He'd once believed that if he looked everywhere he'd find a path forward. Some escape from this hell. But no, the only way was back to the camp of the Kurai goblins.
He turned around to leave.
"You'll never never never believe what I saw earlier!" June said.
"Let me guess. A rock?"
Two shadowy dimples formed momentarily on June's surface, looking like excited eyes. "A rock! What rock?"
Urock groaned. "There's no rock. Just tell the story already."
"No rock," June repeated in a soft tone. "I will miss the rock that never was... What story?"
"You saw something earlier." Why was he entertaining her? That only made her speak to him more.
"Oh! Yes. I squeezed through this hole. It was so small I thought I'd get stuck. Then I was flying and flying, and suddenly, I emerged!"
Urock's heart stopped in his chest. "A way out? You can't mean you found a way out?"
"Yes! You wouldn't believe what is up there!"
"I need you to show me this hole."
June led him down the tunnel he'd walked a thousand times until she slowed before the wall, then started to seep into it.
His hopes waned immediately. It was a crack so tight, he couldn't fit his shortsword between it. "I'm guessing it doesn't get any wider?"
"It gets tighter! And it's long!"
How stupid of him to get his hopes up over something this creature said. Urock walked away, annoyed.
"W-w-wait! Don't you wanna know what is up there?"
Urock clenched his jaw.
"There was no ceiling," June said.
Urock raised a brow. Like a void? He'd always assumed such. And the delvers were probably monsters that came from it.
"It was bright and blue! And these big fluffy things way above! I tried to fly up to see them, but it took too long, so I came back! And there were tall things, and... and... Wait... What was I talking about?"
It sounded like a whole other world. But would he ever get to see it?
The glowing white text hovered two feet before Urock, prompting him to tighten his fist as a much larger goblin stomped past him toward the armory.
"Choose me," he whispered to the air.
Let him be the one to face the unknown, that which no one had ever returned from. He adjusted his brown robe as he walked across the damp floor of the cavern, orange crystals glowing along the walls.
"Urock?" a familiar voice called. He turned to see his nana, the last of his family. She was stirring the contents of a large cauldron, something stinky boiling within it.
"I need to prepare."
His nana waved the spoon at him. "I've cooked up something special! Come and give it a try."
He sighed. They usually had an hour before it happened, and a food buff would be welcome. Closing the distance, he realized just how foul his nana's latest concoction was. It was bright green goop, unlike anything he'd ever seen.
"Nana, this is... How did you make this?"
"Oh, just fished through my old niches. Used some um..." Her old yellow eyes went distant, wrinkles deepening around them. "It's..."
She didn't remember. Urock waved away her worry. "It doesn't matter." After he grabbed a wooden bowl, she scooped up a big slop and plopped it inside. She added another. That was about what his older brother could have consumed, but seeing that Urock was half the size...
He took a great, steaming bite. The horrible smell clawed his nose, and the taste seeped into his tongue. A good stew would leave you tasting it for days. And this?
"Nana, this is disgusting!"
Salewa grinned, showing her missing teeth. "I'd hoped so."
Perfect Food Buff! Years of perfecting her craft have led to the ultimate abomination! +3 to all stats for 1 hour! The wave of power that washed over him was immense.
"Perfect? A perfect buff!" he shouted, making sure others would know.
June zoomed past his ear. "Perfect buff!" she echoed.
If there was ever a day to be summoned, this would be it. He was ready for the truth. Who or what were the delvers, and what happened to those that went to face them? Considering no one ever returned, he had his guess.
His nana eyed the goblins hobbling over. "Maybe you could let your brother know the meal is ready?" Salewa said, stirring it further.
"Nana..." Urock didn't understand how she could be so forgetful, and he didn't feel like explaining it again. "I'll let him know," he lied. He's gone, he wanted to say.
Salewa nodded. "Always wrestling those giant centipedes, isn't he? I remember when you taught them to race! What were their names?"
"Silver and Cujo." It was a memory to cherish, so why then did it bring so much pain? That was the most fun he'd had in his entire life. His brother Ninjek had always won, but still. And the centipedes? He didn't know why their companions had vanished, but he had his suspicion.
His hate for the dungeon boiled back to the surface. The fact that any minute, it would pull away several unlucky goblins. Urock finished most of his bowl, his stomach now protruding.
"Nana?" She looked at him expectingly. He needed to tell her what was happening. She needed to understand that he might disappear. "Thanks again for the meal."
"You're welcome, Ninjek."
He waited for her to correct the mistake. She didn't. Now that was new. Nonetheless, it was time to prepare - an exercise in futility that was. He was always ready. He slept, ate, and lived in his meager gear. From the day the dungeon had taken his mother, he'd spent every day pushing to grow his power and harder still for his brother and father. For all his efforts, he was now two levels higher than anyone, despite being the smallest adult goblin.
His level should have brought the females in droves, but they were conflicted by his smallness. Well, all but one of them. He spotted Yilena among the armor racks and walked over to her.
"I never got around to it but... Congrats on level 13," Urock said.
She looked up with bright blue eyes. "Considering you might never see me again, I guess it's the right time." Her intense stare lingered, making him uncomfortable. "Is that all?"
Be with me, he wanted to say.
"No," he said. "I give you my luck."
She sighed. "I give you mine." She walked away from him to stand among the more brutish goblins.
Yilena always acted like this whenever the alert came. As if he would just confess his love or something? As if they could have gobchildren? As if he would bring someone into such terrible existence, one where they could be chosen to die as soon as they were able to walk?
He felt at his side, feeling his three Minor Mana Potions in his pocket (ultra-rare drops from rats) and his Level 10 Shortsword strapped to his waist. It might sound like an odd weapon for a mage, but its 10 damage granted the highest total to [Magic Weapon]. Until he found something with a substantial boost to Magic or Mana, he would continue to use it.
An instant later, the silent bright text popped up again.
Prepare for summons!
A glowing yellow outline burst alight around Yilena and the goblin warriors she stood around, but the markings of the chosen didn't stop there. Like a great wave, the yellow light surged through the room, marking Urock as well. He no longer looked for who had been chosen but instead, who hadn't. He couldn't find anyone.
He shared a worried glance with Yilena. The caverns went as silent as stone, interrupted only by a few wailing cries. Everyone? His mouth went dry. It could not be.
He rounded a pillar to spot his nana. The dungeon had marked her too. If he'd thought the world cruel before this he'd been naive. He spotted the source of the wailing, a woman named Hilana and her three children. All of them were marked.
He ran back to the armory as fast as he could, grabbed a spear, then sprinted over to Salewa. "We've been called. Do you understand this?" He pushed the spear forward, hoping she'd take it.
She blinked a few times. "You're glowing!"
He touched her shoulder. "The calling, don't you remember what that means?"
For an instant her expression grew lucid, and she took the spear. "The calling..." she said with remembrance. "Yes. It has always been a part of our lives. It is what makes us so strong. We face the unknown, so others don't have to."
She looked down at the spear, confused.
"Just hold onto-"
The ground opened up beneath him. He heard a dozen shouts of surprise right before he started sliding down a smooth stone tunnel. After a minute, he saw light below. He fell through the roof of a small chamber and smacked the rocky floor below. He groaned, cursing the dungeon with his every fiber.