“… Hesk? Is that you?”
It wasn’t like Fizzy to ask such a dumb question, but she couldn’t help it. Though the raptor-shaped apparition in front of her was more luminescent and see-through than the real deal, it was otherwise identical in appearance to the recently deceased Hero of the Sword. The armor, the broad-headed spear and the posture were too similar for this to be a simple coincidence.
“Yes? Have we met before?”
Even her voice and manner of speaking were the same, though her inability to remember Fizzy made it clear this was a fake.
“I guess not. Never mind.”
After all, it was impossible that even the dead would forget someone as magnificent, glorious and radiant as the Rustblood Juggernaut, even if they only met briefly. Or at least that was what the narcissistic golem told herself to ease her slightly bruised ego.
“I apologize, not having a body makes it difficult to retain memories,” the ghost claimed with a slight bow of its head. “That said, it does not matter what our relationship was before. Right now, I am nothing more than the judge for your next test. A referee, if you will. Before we begin, however, let us dispense with this pointless pageantry.”
Hesk then stabbed her spectral spear into the ground and clapped her hands twice. The arena shook, groaned and rattled as the surrounding stands and walls fell away into nothingness. The duo braced themselves, but that proved to have been a needless precaution as the illuminated circle of hard-packed sand was the only thing left standing amidst a sea of darkness.
“Judge?” the golem asked sternly. “Then you’re not going to fight us?”
“Though I would have loved to meet you on the field of battle,” Hesk said as she picked up her spear, “I’m afraid my time has passed. This contest is for the living.”
“Wait, contest? As in only one of us can win?”
Fizzy did not even get the chance to process the implications of those words before Jen- No, before Zone blindsided her with a surprise attack. She had swung her adamantite staff with all her strength, landing a clean hit on the golem’s side, right where her ribs would be if she had any. The force of the blow was so great that it sent Fizzy flying, and would have very nearly sent her off of the edge of the bare-bones arena. The two of them were standing quite close to said edge since that was where Hesk’s ghost currently was, so there was a chance her plan might have worked.
Unfortunately for the Monk, Fizzy had picked the Shock Absorption Skill specifically to counteract this type of situation. Not only did she not fly nearly as far as Zone intended her to, but she also had one more trick up her sleeve. Namely her Lightning Warp, which she immediately used to zap herself immediately above the human’s head. The electrical discharge that followed slightly singed the woman’s black hair, not doing a lot but that was okay since dealing damage was not the Skill’s primary function.
Without saying a word, the golem swung her wrench down on top of Zone’s head, but the Monk was an Ultimate Skill user. Though she had barely used it so far, her Spirit Guardian manifested itself as a spectral pair of arms emerged from her neck and blocked the high-tech tool, stopping it dead in its tracks. Zone then spun around for a second sweeping hit, but her staff was firmly batted away by Fizzy’s shield. The golem landed with a slightly awkward roll and lunged forward with a Nail Strike, which was halted just as effortlessly as her last attack.
The two of them went back and forth for a while, but neither was able to land a solid hit due to both sides constantly predicting the other’s attacks. That said, Zone was slightly better at it than Fizzy, but the quick hits that made it past the golem’s shield were not enough to do any real damage. They still did some since the Monk’s Ki-enhanced attacks and Legendary Strength Perk still allowed her to bypass some of Fizzy’s defenses, but the result was only at the level of scratches and bruises.
“Hey, ref!” the golem shouted after forcing Zone back with a shield bash. “Care to fill me in on what exactly is going on here?!”
“You have reached the dueling portion of The Gauntlet of Eb-Kurah, what is there to understand?”
The ethereal raptor had vanished into thin air at the outbreak of the fight, though it would appear she was still ‘around.’
“Why in Hugo’s holy toenails are we even fighting?!” the golem complained while deflecting another staff strike. “What was the point of forcing us to cooperate if you’re gonna make us fight?!”
“Having the courage to stand up to one’s enemies is one thing, but opposing one’s allies is another altogether. One must be wary of all challengers, lest their tenure as Hero of the Sword be a short one.”
Now it finally made sense. This dungeon was nothing more than a glorified interview to help determine Hesk’s successor, which was also why her ghost was here in the first place.
“Ah, I should probably mention the rules of engagement, shouldn’t I?” the ex-raptor suddenly realized.
“Bit late for that, don’t you think?!”
Hesk ignored the golem’s vocal complaints and carried on speaking, her loud voice clearly audible over the sounds of battle.
“Victory in this duel can be achieved either through forcing your opponent to yield or throwing them out of the ring. The combat area will also shrink continually as time passes. The loser will then safely be teleported outside, but will no longer be able to challenge The Gauntlet of Eb-Kurah.”
“It’s fine if I smash this bint’s head wide open, right?!” Fizzy yelled while firing off a shot from her arm-mounted cannon.
“This is a ring of honor. Cold-blooded murder will result in immediate disqualification.”
It was, after all, assumed that the Hero candidates would be comrades, so outright asking them to kill each other was not in good taste, to say the least. Though fatalities did happen, the vast majority of these cases were accidents. It was far more common to have challengers forfeit immediately, either because they trusted the other person to fulfil the role of Hero or because they were unwilling to fight their friends.
“Like I give a crap about that!”
None of which was a concern for Fizzy.
“Do as you wish,” Hesk said coldly. “You definitely won’t do as Axel’s chosen, so you can just leap off the edge for all I care.”
Truth be told, the excessively shiny Paladin wasn’t all that opposed to that idea. If there were no items to be had, then there was no point in her even being here to begin with. True, giving up would give Zone the Hero title, but the golem didn’t see how that would be of any help. Boxxy had already informed her of the Skills she’d receive, and none of them seemed like much of a threat. Even the posthumous Eternal Crusade could be avoided so long as the Monk failed to die ‘in honorable combat,’ whatever that ambiguous term meant. And though extra combat XP and Skill Proficiency sounded good on paper, it wasn’t all that great in the hands of someone who was already on the verge of a second Level 100 Job.
Bottom line was that, Fizzy failed to see how becoming a Hero of the Sword would be of any use to that woman. From her point of view, it was a hollow title that would in no way allow her to endanger Boxxy’s life. Or hers, for that matter. In fact, Zone was so far beneath Fizzy that the golem almost pitied her.
However, that was before she dared to attack her from behind.
Fizzy’s eyes shone with a burning green light as Plus and Minus were brought into the duel. She then relinquished control of her body to her negatively charged self. In the next instant the golem’s strikes became wild and frenzied, catching Zone off guard and resetting the effects of her opponent’s Disciple of War since she was now technically fighting a different person. This allowed Minus to swing her right fist directly at the angel’s face while the human swung back at her with her staff. The Spirit Guardian then grabbed that punch at the same time as the golem’s shield deflected the counter attack, leading to a momentary lull in the battle.
Which was when Fizzy’s flying wrench, controlled by her Geomagnetic Grip, slammed into Zone’s temple.
At the same time, Plus’s Spell was fired out of the golem’s immobilized right hand. The ball of lightning would have hit her square in the face if not the previous impact moving it ever-so-slightly out of the way.
Fizzy! You made me miss!
Chant faster next time!
Will you two shut up and get to fightin’?!
Taking advantage of that moment of internal discord, Zone booted the golem away with a kick to the chest. The radiant construct fell on her back, then flipped over backwards and took another Magitech Cannon shot at her opponent, which missed spectacularly.
Oh, come on! She didn’t even have to dodge that one!
As if you could do better!
After parrying another of Zone’s moves, Fizzy immediately retaliated by unleashing one of her trump cards.
The high-Level Paladin Skill wrapped itself around the Monk, conjuring a set of manacles forged out of solid light to appear on her wrists, ankles and throat. This technique sealed the use of Skills, Spells and Martial Arts once every six minutes for up to six seconds depending on Level. In its current state it would only last two seconds, but that window was more than enough to let Fizzy deal some serious damage.
The golem’s main personality took over in the next instant, just as she grasped her wrench out of the air with her right hand. Divine Wrath was activated, giving her a blazing green halo and wrapping her weapon in the same holy energy, signifying the temporary boost in her damage output.
With her Spirit Guardian and Ki-based abilities currently out of commission, Zone had no choice but to handle that Martial Art the hard way. Luckily her movements were not being restricted so jumped back to lessen the force of the impact as she put her nigh-indestructible staff in the way of the swing.
You have suffered extreme blunt force trauma. HP -1,402.
Though she did her best to parry it, the magically enhanced blow proved to be too much for her bare flesh to withstand. The brunt of the impact was transmitted through her adamantite rod and into her arms, making them scream out in pain with a disgusting snapping noise. Zone was thrown back by the wide swing and tumbled across the ground. She didn’t have time to deal with her broken left elbow at the moment as she had to roll over to the side in order to avoid the follow up Magitech Cannon shot from Fizzy.
The golem fired off another blast as well as a Lightning Bolt, both of which were just barely evaded. Her Condemn Skill wore off at that point, allowing the Monk to retreat into the air while using Healing Hand to mend her fractured limb. She didn’t have a lot of Ki to work with, however, so she couldn’t afford to heal it completely, but just barely enough to regain the use of her arm. Her radiant opponent kept blasting at her with ranged magic attacks, but this was where Zone’s copious amounts of experience fighting magic users began to shine. It was like she was dodging the attacks before they were even launched, though she had to rely on the three-dimensional mobility of her wings to do so.
“Stop squirming and die like an adult!” Fizzy shouted out loud.
Ugh, knew we should’ve studied Ebonfire instead of Lightning Bolt, Minus grumbled. Bet she wouldn’t be able to dodge that!
None of us ‘get’ shadow magic, though, Plus said defensively.
There was another way, however. As slippery as she was, even Zone could not avoid point blank area attacks. Fizzy’s Engine of Destruction had now generated enough heat to make her body glow red. All she had to do was get in close and discharge it with Heat Exchange, which would surely boil the skin right off that upstart meatbag. The first part of that plan was going to be somewhat problematic, however, as Zone had gained so much altitude that she was outside the forty-meter range of her cannon shots. Which, incidentally, was the longest reaching attack the golem had at her disposal.
What is she doing up there? Minus asked. Think she figured out what we were up to?
Maybe she realized how rude she was and is considering letting us snap her neck as an apology?
Sweet Marcel, Plus! There’s gotta be a limit to how optimistic you can get!
That scenario would be the most expedient solution, Null chimed in with a rare comment, but meatbags have been observed to be sorely lacking in efficiency.
“Uh, guys?” Fizzy interrupted them. “Is it me or is the arena shrinking?”
Indeed, now that the others thought about it, the ring of dirt was notably smaller than it used to be.
“I already mentioned it would, did I not?” Hesk’s voice echoed around them. “The duel area will keep crumbling until a victor is decided.”
“Doesn’t that mean she can just wait up there for us to fall?”
“Indeed, it does.”
“How is that supposed to be a fair duel, then?”
“The world isn’t a fair place. If your ‘cutting edge technology’ can’t handle a bit of vertical movement, then that’s your problem. Not mine.”
That comment made it clear the ghost had been remotely observing the pair from the very start, and if her tone was any indication then it was clear she was playing favorites. It wouldn’t surprise Fizzy if there was normally a no-flying ban in the area, which had been lifted since it would give Zone the advantage.
Or at least it would have, if not for one tiny detail.
“Who said it couldn’t?”
Fizzy’s body began morphing once again, much like it had at the start of the dungeon. Zone wondered if she should strike while this was going on, but she hesitated. She had indeed picked up that this golem was planning some sort of short-range tactic, so she was wary of giving her the chance. Not to mention she had seen the defensive power of that Fortress Mode first-hand. She realized too late, however, that Fizzy wasn’t becoming shorter and fatter, but taller and slimmer.
This new configuration was slender, sleek, streamlined, stylish even. Even her shield was reduced in size to nothing more than a bracer-like decoration. Overall, the golem now looked like the world’s shiniest Rogue, especially with the faceplate that hid the lower half of her face. Of particular note were the two identical devices attached to her back. They were cylindrical, had a lot of moving parts, and each sported a trio of long blade-like attachments that seemed to move around in unison.
What Zone was about to find out was that these curious things were not weapons, but the turbines of Fizzy’s integrated jet pack.
Assault Mode is now active.
All damage taken increased by 15%.
The effectiveness of the AGI Attribute has been increased by 25%.
Proficiency level decreased. Static Field is now Level 0. INT -40. WIS -20.
Proficiency level increased. Jump Jets is now Level 10. INT +40. WIS +20.
Fizzy immediately spooled up her new engines. Within moments the two main boosters on her back and the two supporting ones in her calves started spewing bright blue flames, propelling her onward and upward. The jets screamed as her red-hot frame soared straight for Zone like some sort of violence-guided missile. Almost exactly like that, actually. She didn’t have her heavy-duty wrench in her hands, though. That was being dragged alongside her by Plus, who was currently utilizing the body’s magnetic abilities. The same ones she tried repeatedly to use on Zone’s staff, but failed miserably since adamantite was an exceptionally stubborn metal that refused to yield to her magnetism.
That aside, the wrench was not going to be Fizzy’s weapon of choice this time around. That particular honor would be left to Assault Mode’s built-in weapons. The golem flicked her arms outward, causing a pair of collapsible mithril blades to shoot out of the slots just above her wrists. Unfortunately, they were not considered traditional weapons and as such did not benefit from Mastery Skills, but their owner had never found them wanting when it came to carving up uppity meatbags. Not to mention they allowed for fast, rapid strikes, which if Fizzy’s memory served was the proper way to overcome that Ultimate Skill’s defense.
However, Zone was no stranger to aerial combat. Far from it, she was an expert on the matter. She was able to jerk out of the way of Fizzy’s flight path at the last second, making her cross-slice hit nothing but air. The golem responded by cutting her engines, doing a half-backflip and reigniting them, resulting in an instantaneous one-eighty turn that would be impossible with mere wings.
The angelic Monk was unable to dodge the second assault in time and had to meet it head on. Her bare fist caught one blade, her Spirit Guardian blocked the second, and her staff fought off the flying wrench. It seemed she had put considerable effort into that last one, as it was strong enough to bend the heavy tool into an awkward shape. Zone sharpened her concentration as she readied herself to dodge yet more point-blank Spells, but her opponent instead enacted her earlier plan of using Heat Exchange. The area around her was bathed in smoke, steam and flames as her superheated frame purged all the heat it had built up since the start of the duel.
And, much as the golem had been intending, Zone took the blast hard. She let out a rare scream of pain as her skin burned and her eyes boiled, her Ki unable to protect her from the overwhelming heat. She fell out of the air, trailing smoke behind her, crashing down into the remnants of the arena below. The dirt ring had become so small by then that it couldn’t have been more than five meters wide. It was something of a miracle she landed on it instead of into the surrounding abyss. Though seeing as how her landing made another big chunk of it just break off, it wouldn’t be long before Zone fell into the bottomless darkness below.
Fizzy had been left hovering in the air and looking down at the squirming meatbag in every way imaginable. The Heat Exchange didn’t do all that much damage in terms of HP, but it had clearly deprived her opponent of her sight considering the way she was grasping at nothing while crawling around on the dirt. Part of Fizzy wanted to just let her fall, as it would force the Monk to live knowing that she’d blown her one chance at being a Hero. As satisfying as that thought was, another part of the golem - mostly Minus - wanted to gouge her heart out and shove it down her throat. Then Plus pointed out that said vital organ would make a great afternoon snack for Boxxy.
Fizzy had to make up her mind sooner rather than later though, as she couldn’t hover in place forever. The Jump Jets Skill, much like the name implied, was intended for short bursts, not sustained flight. What she was currently doing was draining her MP at an alarming rate, especially since her Engine of Destruction was not generating much of it now that she had cooled off.
After a very brief moment of deliberation the golem settled on killing Zone off here and now. Even if Boxxy said this woman could be of use, Fizzy ultimately didn’t like the idea of letting this loose end wander about the place. With that in mind, the flying construct swooped down to deliver the killing blow, aiming to pierce her heart from behind. With her Ki no doubt exhausted and with the added velocity of the golem’s Jump Jets, even Zone’s tough body would surely be skewered clean through. Fizzy realized too little too late, however, that even though she seemed to be in agony, the Monk looked a little bit too… healthy.
Zone suddenly jerked out of the way just before the golem’s blades tore her a structurally superfluous new behind, making them dig into the hard-packed dirt instead. She stood up, holding something in her hand. It was an empty steel tincture inlaid with silver, which had been in the pouch behind her waist and until a few seconds ago contained a dose of Rejuvenation Potion. She leapt onto the golem’s back before Fizzy could stand up and resume her assault, then threw the hollow metal container into one of her turbines. Fizzy threw her off in the next instant, but the damage was already done.
Now, Zone wasn’t the brightest when it came to brain-intensive disciplines like science, machinery, magic or the like. She was very good at breaking things, however. Whether it was people, buildings, gadgets, or organizations, she instinctively knew that the more moving parts a system had, the easier it was to sabotage it. That was how, even though this was her first time seeing a mana-fueled jet engine, she was able to reliably recognize how to best break it.
A horrible grinding noise came out of the golem’s back-mounted device, accompanied by a deluge of sparks and spurts of smoke. It wasn’t broken per-se, but the steel tincture had been chewed up so completely and thoroughly that it jammed up the delicate internal components, making it malfunction in the process.
“You gonna pay for that!”
Fizzy screamed in anger as she lunged at Zone, but she made the mistake of getting too agitated. As someone who had never taken anything that could be called ‘a clean hit’ in over a year, that cheap trick got her so mad that she lost sight of what was important. More specifically her surroundings and the fact that Assault Mode was significantly lighter than her usual self. Which was how Zone was able to slip past her amateurish slashes and push her over the edge.
With her engine out of order, Fizzy immediately used Lightning Warp to put herself back on solid ground, but her opponent was ready for her. The Monk used what little Ki she had been able to regain and kicked the golem straight in the face the instant she reappeared, ignoring the burst of electricity that accompanied that short-range teleportation Skill. Fizzy tumbled backwards across the tiny platform and managed to stop herself just short of falling over, only to have her footing crumble underneath her feet.
However, though she was already on her way down, the golem had one last hand to play. She activated Runic Feedback, causing the various arcane sigils on her mithril frame to light up and disappear as they empowered her next Spell.
What looked like a faucet of pure golden light appeared out of thin air and smacked Zone across the face. The Spell in question would not have done much if she still had her Ki defenses, but she had used what little spiritual energy she had recovered since her fall to push Fizzy over. She took that plumbing-delivered hit hard as it knocked out both a tooth and her consciousness.
Zone woke up after about a minute, leaping to her feet the instant she was able to. She calmed down a few frantic breaths later when she realized the mock arena had been returned to its initial splendor. Though Fizzy’s last ditch effort certainly was a good one, it didn’t prevent the golem from falling into that black abyss, leaving Zone as the clear victor. Hesk shimmered into existence in front of the winner with her chin held high, her chest puffed out and her arms crossed behind her back, almost like a military drill instructor.
“Well. That’s that I suppose,” she said in a casual manner. “Tell me though, why did you team up with that thing if you planned to throw her off from the start?”
It was clear the human knew a lot more about these Hero tryouts than she let on, and used that to her advantage. Not a very honorable thing to do, even if her ‘victim’ was technically a monster.
“Had no other options.”
That was the fact of the matter, and one of the few things that this woman had been honest about when she last spoke with Boxxy. She knew of nobody on her own level who would be willing to follow her into a dungeon sight unseen, but she knew she could tempt that creature with the promise of quality items. Which, incidentally, was also not a total lie seeing as there was indeed a superbly powerful weapon to be gained in this dungeon, but that would have to wait for later.
“Hm. There’s always another option. You just failed to realize it existed,” the ghostly raptor said sternly.
“Did I pass the trial or not?” the Monk insisted.
“You pass, I suppose. Even if you had to resort to some… questionable tactics, such things are often necessary when dealing with monsters. I will not condone what you did, but I will not fault you for it either. Do keep in mind, however, that it is not I who will decide if you are worthy.”
Hesk clapped her hands again, causing a doorway of light to appear in front of Zone.
“Your next trial awaits. Ah, and you will probably be needing this.”
She raised one of her palms, prompting the staff that Zone dropped earlier to pop out of the ground like an overly enthusiastic bean sprout.
“A warrior is nothing without her weapon, after all.”
The Monk nodded, grabbed the black metal rod, and stepped through the gate.
While that was going on, a very irate mithril woman was falling down an unreasonably long flight of stairs, spilling out profanities along the way. The steps were so steep that she was unable to slow herself down until she landed face first into the dirt at the bottom of that orange pyramid.
“I swear I’ll rip her freaking lungs out!” she snarled while standing up. “Don’t tell me to calm down, I am calm! This right now is me being just as calm as I need to be!”
“I take it the dungeon dive didn’t go as planned?”
Fizzy, who was still in Assault Mode, spun around and pointed her blades at the source of that voice, only to find that it belonged to Boxxy, currently in the guise of the Sandman.
“Oh. Was wondering when you were going to show up.”
‘Busy preparing to go home?’ As if that was what this compulsive liar was actually up to. It probably stalked her and Jen as they were trekking through the jungle and only recalled its demons to make the Monk lower her guard. Fizzy was a hundred percent sure it would come to fetch her at some point, and by the looks of things it had been waiting for a while. A long while at that, as it was already night out. She looked back up at the annoyingly long flight of stairs and scowled. If she knew she was going to fail anyway then she would’ve flown up there earlier instead of keeping this form a secret, just in case it became necessary.
Then again, if she had known what was going to happen, she would have crushed that woman the instant she saw her.
“Here, let me clean that out.”
Boxxy reached a hand into her turbine and used its shapeshifting limb and MLG to clean out all of the scrap jamming the engine.
“There, all done.”
Fizzy gave her jump jets a quick spool and was relieved to hear them ‘sing’ once more. She made a mental note to be more mindful of that opening in the future and reverted to her default configuration.
“So… turns out this place is a testing ground for Hero of the Sword candidates, and I got kicked out because of its rules,” the golem revealed in a rare apologetic tone.
“Hmmm, I figured it would be something like that.”
No Heroes allowed? Must have a follower of Axel along? The entry criteria alone were a dead giveaway, not to mention the timing. That woman had been here for at least a year and a half, yet only decided to challenge this place after Hesk was reported dead. Even if she was a criminal up north, nobody here knew her face or name, so she should’ve been able to find a good partner given that much time. Especially considering she was resourceful enough to figure out that Boxxy had been looking for it too. The only reason she approached it and Fizzy in the first place was because she was impatient and in a rush to beat the competition to the punch.
Then, once she had claimed a Hero title, she would have all the support for the Dragon Festival she could’ve wanted.
Or at least that was what Boxxy suspected Jen would be thinking, given her situation. As for Fizzy, she wasn’t even going to try to ask why her partner didn’t tell her the whole story or what it was scheming. That would’ve been as pointless as petitioning a fire to stop burning things. Instead she chose to bring up a far more productive topic.
“What happens now?”
Namely - the next step in the shapeshifter’s plan.
“First you’re going to tell me exactly what went on inside.”
“And then we wait for Jen to fail.”