Jen kept marching onward, concentrating solely on putting one foot in front of the other. She had been at this for what seemed like hours, but it was difficult to accurately gauge the passage of time. At least there was no chance of getting lost or anything since there were no side paths, doors or even turns to the dimly lit hallway she was in. It was so perfectly straight that it seemed to stretch out into infinity ahead of her, making it impossible to tell how long the passage actually was. The only thing she had to worry about was getting turned around since there were no markings or decorations to help her determine if she was still going the right way. Not even the torches lining the walls to her left and right would be of any help since they all looked identical as far as the Monk could tell.
And though ‘keep walking straight’ seemed like a simple enough idea in theory, this hallway was full of… distractions.
“Please, help me! Orcs captured my daughter, you have to save her!”
What looked like a distressed human villager stood in Jen’s way, but she didn’t even slow down as she pushed him over just by bumping into him. The man fell to the ground hard and practically groveled as he continued to plead for help to no avail. He even went as far as to try to grab the Monk by the feet, only to have Jen effortlessly slip her legs out of his grasp without even breaking her stride. She was so completely unaffected that it was almost as if he wasn’t there at all.
Which, for all intents and purposes, was the case. Though the illusion of a villager in peril looked, sounded and even felt extremely convincing, it was ultimately just that - an illusion. Nothing more than a puppet made from light and magic that vanished like mist in the wind mere moments after being left behind. It was not the first time Jen had encountered such an entity, nor was it the last. In fact, a new petitioner had shown up before the previous one had fully disappeared. This time it was an injured raptor soldier sitting with his back against the wall to the left, the massive wound across his chest bleeding profusely with every pained breath he took. His scales were also literally peeling off of his face like snowflakes, suggesting there was more wrong with him than just physical trauma.
“Please, stranger,” he whispered at Jen, “give me a clean end. Koff! Koff! I implore you, free me from this agony…”
He too was summarily ignored. As were the children begging for food, the armed knights challenging her to a duel and the brigands demanding payment for safe passage. One after the other these apparitions assaulted Jen, attempting to either tug at her heartstrings, get on her nerves or appeal to her love of combat. They had been doing that ever since that glowing doorway set her on this path, so it was quite obvious they were all a part of some bizarre mind game between herself and the dungeon.
Having worked alongside a Psionic for many years, Jen knew full well that even responding to these illusions could open her up to a more powerful mental attack. Her Scribe Job did allow her a measure of defense against such things thanks to the Domination Resistance Skill, but she was doubtful whether it would help her in this situation. The Gauntlet scaled in difficulty to truly challenge the ones seeking to conquer it, so it was safe to assume any mental attacks it used on her would easily overwhelm her relatively tiny MNT.
Therefore, the best course of action was to ignore these things completely, which was precisely what she did. With little difficulty, too. It was debatable whether this was due to her warped personality, because her training as a Monk allowed her to maintain a firm grip on her emotions, or a mix of both. Ultimately the only thing Jen’s mind was focused on was clearing the dungeon, which was why she resorted to that surprise attack in the duel against Fizzy. Though she did feel a twinge of regret for doing that instead of challenging her normally, she already knew she had no way of winning in a straight up fight. Having seen her fight the monsters in the early stages of The Gauntlet made that abundantly clear.
Truthfully she somewhat envied the golem’s physical prowess and resilient constitution, but ultimately the radiant construct proved to be nothing more than a power leveler. Just another inexperienced fool that coasted on their inflated power without even learning how to control it effectively. At least that six-armed fiend Boxxy threw at her had realized her mistake after their first bout and had gone to great lengths to correct her failings by the time they faced off in Watford. Fizzy, on the other hand, seemed far too arrogant and full of herself to strive to improve beyond just ‘stacking numbers.’
Then again, the Monk was a firm believer in the ludicrous idea that ‘real fighters talked with their fists,’ so there was a good chance her conclusions were based on imagination rather than fact.
“You always lacked foresight, you know that?”
Jen’s attempts to distract herself with introspective were suddenly put to a halt when she heard that gritty voice. It was a tone she was very well familiar with, but also one that she did not expect to hear again. On the other hand, this Hero tryout was administered by the recently deceased holder of the title, so meeting her old boss in this place was perhaps not all that strange.
“Always running around and doing what you want without any regard for the consequences, like a child playing grown-up.”
Even if it was just an illusion, the fact that it bore Edward’s form and spoke in his voice made it impossible for Jen to just walk past it. The way the apparition leaned its shoulder against the wall with arms crossed and venomous scowl was just like him, too.
“Your attitude has its uses, I suppose,” he continued. “It made you easy to control. I just had to point you in a certain direction and you would carry out your orders without question, no matter who your target was. Too bad, it was also a massive pain in my ass. You ended up turning at least half your missions into war zones. That’s why I gave you that callsign to begin with, you know.”
It was at this point that Jen realized she had stopped in her tracks to listen to the fake Spymaster. She hurriedly resumed her stride down the stone hallway, doing her best to stay calm.
“Face it, Zone!” Edward shouted after her. “You’re nothing more than a beast in the skin of a woman!”
Her face was still as cold as ever, but her quickened pace suggested those words had gotten to her. The apparition then went quiet after that. It likely faded away into thin air, though Jen refused to look over her shoulder to check. Unfortunately for her, it wasn’t the last ghost of the past to be dredged up by the dungeon.
“I am disappointed in you, Jennifer.”
Up next was Milo Faehorn, her once comrade who she had personally thrown to his death during the Calamity Conflict. The old elf stared at her with that strict, demanding glare of his, which was impressive considering most of his face had been squashed flat, presumably from his landing.
“I thought you better than associating with scum like the Emperor’s spies. You may have been a bit… odd, but at least you knew who your friends were.”
“You were weak, old man,” she couldn’t help but respond. “You couldn’t do anything by yourself.”
“Yes… that’s right,” he agreed after a short pause. “We all were like that, back in the day. None of us would have survived as long as we did if we hadn’t put our lives in each other’s hands. We had our differences, but I always considered you to be one of us, Jennifer. That is why I am so disappointed that it was you who ended my life.”
Jen once again forced herself to move forward, practically breaking out into a run in an effort to put some distance between herself and that unpleasant thought. Truth be told, she always harbored a bit of resentment for having to do what she did to the grizzled Ranger. He deserved a better end than simply being thrown to his death. However, it couldn’t be helped. Such was the cruel reality of war between nations.
Wait, why was she even giving that illusion the time of day? Jen shook her head and attempted to get her rampant thoughts under control, but found it difficult to calm down with all these non-people badgering her every step of the way. Each of them had been dredged up from her past and served as a reminder of her every failure. She was even sure she caught a glimpse of her late raptor father, who merely shook his head in disbelief as she passed by.
And then, out of nowhere, Jen felt herself fall. She plummeted downward, tumbling and spinning like a rock that had rolled off of a cliff. She landed on a patch of hard-packed yellow dirt before the thought of using her angelic wings even occurred to her. The hard impact with the ground seemed to snap her out of her anxiety, thereby putting a halt to her mild panic attack.
The Monk rose to her feet, only to find she was now back in the arena where she fought Fizzy, with Hesk’s ghost standing opposite her.
“Did you enjoy the Walk of Solitude?” the specter asked her calmly. “Probably not. It is… quite unpleasant.”
“That bloody corridor, it tries to open all of your old wounds. It even digs up memories you yourself had either forgotten or repressed,” Hesk explained in a spiteful tone. “The important thing is that you made it out of there, which means we can proceed with the final test.”
“Reporting that I am prepared,” the Monk immediately said.
“No, you are not,” Hesk replied grimly. “Nobody is truly prepared for the burden of being a Hero of the Sword.”
“I can handle it,” Jen insisted. “Requesting that we proceed with the trial.”
“If you’re so eager to begin then you best center yourself. Your opponent should be here shortly.”
The Monk didn’t even get the chance to ask what Hesk meant by ‘opponent’ when she heard another familiar voice, this one coming from above her.
Something heavy, black, short and rude slammed into the arena with the grace of a drunken kraken on ice. The newcomer slowly stood up amidst the cloud of dust its crash landing had kicked up, cursing and swearing under their breath all the while.
“I swear, if I don’t get to hit somethin’ I’m… What in my grandfather’s beard are you doing here?!”
It was Hilda.
The notion that this might be another illusion crossed Jen’s mind, but seeing the dwarf bring out her favorite two-handed axe from her Rearm Skill made it abundantly clear this was not the case. Not to mention that, even if they were technically solid, those apparitions the Monk saw earlier were extremely fragile. They would not survive a landing as hard as the one she had just seen, not to mention they were not heavy enough to make the ground tremble.
“I could ask you the same thing,” she replied while readying her own staff.
“Me? I’m aimin’ fer the Hero title, of course! Why the bloody fook else would I be here?”
“How did you find this place?”
Though this dungeon’s existence was not the best kept secret, it was also not what one would call ‘public knowledge.’ Jen herself only knew of it because she used to belong to a temple of Axel here on Velos during her youth.
“Uh, my grandfather was a Hero of the Sword? Duh?”
“Ah, no wonder that weapon is so familiar,” Hesk remarked while glancing at the ridiculously large axe in Hilda’s hands. “The one who administered my exam held one just like it.”
Incidentally, he was also the individual who said Kaede was ‘kind of a cunt’ during the most recent invocation of the Eternal Crusade against Gutzstompa. Not that Jen had any way of knowing that, though she really should have remembered the Berserker’s grandfather was indeed a Hero of the Sword. In fact, Hilda herself had mentioned it numerous times back when she, Jen, Faehorn and Lichter still travelled together. Dwarves exalted their family’s lineage, history and accomplishment, so it was only natural she wouldn’t shut up about it.
“So what’s the deal, Hesk? Why’d you let this problem child even attempt the trials?” the dwarf asked while jerking her head towards Jen.
“Axel has given her a chance to prove she is capable of redeeming herself,” was the ghost’s dry answer. “Which brings me to the topic at hand. As you might have guessed, this is another trial of combat. Not against an ally, but a rival. The rules are the same as before, except this time there is no time limit.”
Hesk clapped twice, and just like before the pageantry, decor and heraldry fell away, leaving nothing behind but a ring of dirt floating amidst a sea of darkness.
“You may begin.”
Those three words barely even left the ghostly raptor’s mouth before Hilda hurled her axe at Jen. It was dodged effortlessly, after which it fell into the surrounding abyss. The dwarf then surged forward with a war cry and a smaller axe in each hand. Unlike when these two last met at the siege of Fort Yimin, the dwarf was skipping the warm up and jumping straight into the consecutive rapid strikes to try and overwhelm the Monk’s defenses. Jen, however, had also picked up a thing or two since then, and used her staff’s reach to strike at the Berserker while dancing around just outside of her shorter effective range. The raven-haired human wasn’t doing a lot of damage this way, but she was taking none in return, so this strategy worked out for her.
At least for a time, until Hilda changed up her approach. She did that so many times over the course of the fight that the other combatant completely lost count. Spears, staves, daggers, poleaxes, swords, shields, bows, crossbows, smoke bombs, hammers, maces, flails, axes, spiked gauntlets - every weapon under the sun and then some was brought to bear against the angelic Monk. All while throwing out so many Martial Arts that Jen couldn’t help but think even Rogue and Ranger moves were mixed in there. Hilda kept varying up her assault, emptying her pocket arsenal at such a rate that the ring quickly started to look like a full blown skirmish had taken place what with all the discarded weaponry. She also changed gear sets as well, swapping between equipment that boosted either her speed, strength or defenses to keep her opponent guessing and on her toes.
As the duel progressed, Jen found herself sinking deeper and deeper into a battle trance, her focus and concentration climbing to levels she didn’t think possible. In here, there were no superior officers barking orders, no random soldiers prancing around a chaotic battlefield, and no larger picture to be aware of. Just her, her opponent, the ground underneath her feet, and the breath in her breast. Jen hadn’t even realized she was sporting the biggest grin of her life as she kept dodging and weaving between a hailstorm of blows, nor did she have any idea how long the fight had gone on for.
But, like all good things, it had to eventually come to an end. The fight drew to a close when Jen kicked one of the dwarf’s custom-made shields, sending it flying from its resting place on the ground straight into her arm. The metal disc’s sharpened edge sliced deep into the inside of her left elbow where there was a gap in the armor, lodging itself all the way to the bone. Of course, being a Berserker meant that this deep cut only made Hilda that tiny bit stronger, but at the same time robbed her of the use of one of her arms.
The Monk then stepped aggressively forward, thrusting at her opponent’s other arm. Her adamantite staff had been bent in several places and she was missing an eye thanks to a well-timed trident throw, so it was not an accurate a strike as she would have liked. Even if it was sloppy, however, the thrust made impact with the dwarf’s limb all the same, slamming into the battered armor hard enough to break the bone underneath, just below the shoulder.
With both of her arms injured, Hilda finally relented. The blazing rage burning within her eyes began to die down and the twin swords she was holding slipped out of her grasp. She stumbled backwards for a few steps and then, finally, fell over with a pained groan and a loud thud. The impact made her helmet roll off her head, revealing her bloodied and beaten face as she gasped for air, eyes rolling around in a dazed state.
Though she put up an admirable fight, Hilda’s broken body and shallow breaths were a testament to Jen’s prowess when it came to the art of armed melee combat. And with the Berserker’s various blood-rage effects subsiding, she was made acutely aware of the unimaginable pain coursing through her entire being. She couldn’t even tighten a fist, let alone swing a weapon. To say that she had been defeated would have been a gross understatement.
In her delirious state, she didn’t even notice the butt of Jen’s staff as it stamped down on her forehead, cracking her skull and driving it into the dirt. The Monk didn’t let her off with just that one hit, as she repeated the motion again and again, flattening Hilda’s head into a disgusting mess of blood, brains and bone while sporting the smile and eyes of a madwoman. She kept beating the dead dwarf over and over for a solid minute before her battle frenzy finally began to subside.
As the Monk’s adrenaline rush wore off, all of the injuries she had sustained throughout the fight cried out at once. It was now Jen’s turn to stagger and stumble, forcing her to lean against her staff while panting heavily in an effort to avoid falling over. It didn’t do much good as all strength and energy drained away from her body, forcing her knees to buckle and her butt to hit the blood-soaked dirt underneath.
It was at this moment that Hesk’s spirit chose to show herself in front of Jen once more.
“Well… I guess that settles that, doesn’t it?” she said in a casual manner.
“Indeed it does.”
A second voice echoed throughout the arena, this one deep and smooth, not at all hissy or throaty like the spectral lizard’s. Jen didn’t even have a chance to collect her thoughts when the ground she was sitting on began to rumble and quake. It fell out from under her and the woman felt herself plummeting into nothingness once more.
Jen suddenly stood up, leaping to her feet while screaming and looking around herself in a panic. She was still in the middle of the arena that lay in the deepest parts of The Gauntlet, complete with stands, banners and clay-faced crowd. However, unlike before, the statues were not cheering or smiling, but staring down at her as if judging her. It was only then she realized that they had all taken on a lot more detail than the vague nondescript humanoid forms they had before. Very… specific details at that.
She saw Edward’s near-constant scowl, Faehorn’s judgmental stare, and a plethora of others she had ‘met’ during the Walk of Solitude. Even Fizzy was among them for some reason, though she looked distinctly more gnomish than the last time Jen saw her. It was only when the Monk laid eyes on Hilda’s cocky clay grin that she realized that there was no sign of the dwarf’s corpse or gear. The only thing in the ring was Jen herself, whose body was in perfect shape, including her supposedly destroyed eyeball. Even her weapon was completely devoid of any of the battle damage it had sustained in that glorious duel, which was easily the best fight the Monk had experienced in her life.
A fight that had apparently and regretfully not been real. What had truly happened was that the magical doorway Jen stepped through after triumphing over Fizzy had not transported all of her, just her mind and soul. It delivered them into a certain being’s personal place, where she had been presented with The Gauntlet’s final trial without realizing it. The thing she fought at the end was not the real Hilda, but merely a figment of her imagination given life by a higher power.
A higher power that chose to manifest itself in front of her in a flash of light. It took on the shape of a humanoid figure clad head to toe in ceremonial armor that shone in a surreal bright red hue. It also had an impractically large gold-threaded cape, its tattered ends fluttering around and behind it despite the absence of wind, forming an almost literal cloud of cloth. The figure’s wide hands rested on the hilt of a sword that looked slightly too small for its wielder, its tip resting against the sand-like dirt underfoot. It was almost as if the apparition was using it as the world’s sharpest cane.
It was also the thing that captivated Jen’s attention the most. A long and elegant double-edged blade made from a sky-blue metal with glowing arcane sigils running its length. It was an item that the Monk was able to instantly recognize from the sacred texts she had perused, and was the main reason she was in here to begin with. Even her goal of becoming a Hero of the Sword had merely been a stepping stone towards obtaining that weapon. Admittedly swords weren’t exactly her forte, but she knew enough about swords to use them competently enough. Not nearly as well as her staff, though she wouldn’t necessarily need to if she had this relic.
Its name was Peacekeeper, Blade of the First Crusader, and it was a Divine-ranked item that had slumbered in this temple for centuries. If used against enlightened, it would only act as a very sharp sword with no unique or particularly remarkable properties. However, if brought to bear against a monster, it would cut through all forms of defensive gear, magic and Skills with zero effort. It could, in theory, be used to gouge out an elder dragon’s heart, if the wielder got close enough to strike at it. Needless to say, neither the lesser flying lizards one would encounter during the Dragon Festival nor a certain incomprehensibly resilient Hero of Chaos would stand a chance against Jen if she had this thing.
“My eyes are up here.”
Unfortunately, if that slow and thoroughly displeased tone was any indication, that wasn’t about to happen. Jen’s glance wandered away from the weapon and up the crimson-clad figure’s body, settling on the hollow eye sockets of its face-concealing horned helmet. She then immediately dropped her weapon and knelt down in front of it, lowering her head and clasping her hands together as if she was about to pray. She wasn’t going to do that here and now though, nor did she have a habit of praying in the first place. Which, incidentally, was part of the problem to begin with.
“You are a disgrace.”
Jen felt those words pierce through her like a dagger through the heart. They were slow and deliberate, each word enunciated in such a way as to make it impossible to misconstrue their meaning.
“Never have I ever,” Axel continued, “seen one as despicable as you trying to pass themselves off as a follower of Mine.”
The God’s angered voice echoed all around, threatening to rupture the mortal’s eardrums. The guy could have easily given a certain flaming Overlord a run for his money in the loudmouth department.
“First you bring a monster into this sacred place. Then, you disrespect the ring of honor. But Hesk believed, saw potential in you. She asked that I allow you to complete the gauntlet, just in case. And so I did.”
The deity’s avatar moved its head as if to spit on the ground, though it obviously produced no saliva, even if it made the noise.
“What a waste of time and energy,” Axel groaned at her. “You may have talent, but you care not for your fellow man. You care not for the rules of engagement, nor do you have any respect for those you see as weaker than yourself. All you care for is the thrill of combat.”
Hesk had clearly stated that cold-blooded murder would not be tolerated in the ring of honor. Yet that was precisely what Jen had done to the illusory Hilda. She had been so lost in her own world that she completely lost sight of where she was or what she was doing. Even if it was a manufactured scenario with no real world repercussions, the Monk didn’t know that at the time. Which meant that the brutality she showed Axel was none other than her true self.
“You are but a bloodthirsty wretch. A dishonorable, disreputable, incorrigible failure of a human being who is incapable of learning from your own past. Your only goal in life seems to be to inflict violence upon others for your own enjoyment, almost as if you were a filthy orc wearing the skin of a person! And yet you are still brazen enough to shamelessly covet my divine relic?! An item that you are not, were not, nor will you ever be worthy of?!”
The God of War and Combat paused for a moment to pull back his ire. He didn’t want to give that asshole Freddie a reason to lecture him on the subject of why giving into his anger was ‘not healthy’ for the hundredth time. He continued a few heartbeats later, his tone as level as it had been when he first spoke.
“You are lucky I do not end your miserable existence here and now. Staining this sacred place with your wretched blood would be a disservice to all who have come before you, and all who will follow after you. But I also cannot let you just walk out of here without punishing you for your arrogance, so I will have to settle for this.”
Axel’s avatar held its armored hand out, prompting an invisible force to grab hold of the flabbergasted human’s body. It held her so tightly, so completely that she could barely even breathe, let alone struggle. As strong as she was, she was ultimately nothing more but a plaything before the might of a God, and was thus unable to stop what was about to happen.
A pair of spectral blue figures walked out of Axel’s billowing cape. The one on the left was Hesk and the other was Hilda’s grandfather, if the axe hanging off his back was any indication. They stood on either side of the bound woman and reached out, grabbing the air just behind her with both hands. They then pulled on what appeared to be nothing until, after a brief moment of struggle, made the angel’s ethereal golden wings materialize out of nothing.
“Jennifer Jackson. Your services are no longer required,” Axel declared.
Ignoring Jen’s pleas, they each gripped their weapon of choice and with a swift unified motion severed the wings at their base, forcing them to disperse in a flutter of radiant feathers.
Proficiency level decreased. Divine Flight is now Level 0. AGI -20. FTH -20.
“NOOO! I NEED THOSE!”
Hesk then swung her spear and sliced at the air just above the screaming Monk’s head, severing the normally invisible and intangible halo that served as her symbol of divinity.
Proficiency level decreased. Disciple of War is now Level 0. STR -20. FTH -20.
Feat of shame performed! You have unlocked a new Perk: Faithless Servant. FTH -25.
The former Heroes then calmly walked back into the floating cloth they had come from, though not before Hesk looked over her shoulders at the distraught human one last time. The reason she had stood up for her was because Jen reminded the raptor of her younger self. Unlike her, however, the Walk of Solitude had helped Hesk realize that seeking power for power’s sake only led to disaster. Then again, perhaps she was expecting too much of the human. That woman had spent a lifetime as someone who had to put on that fake face just so she could hide her bloodlust. The weight of that past was simply much too heavy, which was probably why the Gods typically picked youngsters as their Heroes.
In the end, Hesk simply concluded that she had been far too naive, or perhaps too eager to find a replacement. She was honestly on the fence about letting Jen and Fizzy in considering the latter was a monster, but it was clear to her now she made the wrong choice. The spectral raptor then disappeared within the folds of Axel’s cape, leaving the deity in question to wrap things up.
“Begone, and never return!”
One flick of the wrist and dimensional rift later, Jen found herself tumbling down the steps of the Temple of the First Crusader. She didn’t even try to fight gravity and just sort of let it happen, rolling over heels over ass as if she were a rag doll that had been discarded after its owner had grown bored of it. She only came to a stop when her back hit the dirt at the bottom, leaving her staring idly and absentmindedly at the heavens above her. She had spent so long in that dungeon that it was now late morning.
The sky sure is blue…
In her dazed, confused, and distraught mental state, the only coherent thought that seemed to emerge within her was a rather… puerile one.
“You alright over there?”
And then, almost as if on cue, Keira’s smugly grinning face bobbed into view as the catgirl-shaped monster leaned over the Monk. One could practically see the ‘I told you so’ written all over that smile, even though Boxxy had never declared she would fail. Not out loud and to her face, at any rate.
“Have you come to kill me?”
As for Jen, she seemed oddly at peace considering she was talking to her future murderer. Or it might have been the concussion talking. Hard to tell at this point.
“Hah! Please,” the shapeshifter scoffed. “If I wanted you dead you’d never have made it out of our initial meeting.”
“What do you want, then?”
“Many things. So many that we’d be here all day if I started listing them out. However, what I need from you specifically is the weapon I was promised. So, where is it?”
Jen let out a humorless chuckle as she forced herself to stand. She looked the monstrous beastkin right in her yellow eyes and openly admitted her honest intentions.
“I never intended to give you anything. Even if I did obtain what I was after, I would have used it to end your life without a second thought.”
“Yes, yes, you want to regain your honor or avenge your fallen comrades or whatever, I honestly couldn’t care less. Or wait, maybe I could? Can you have negative care capacity? Probably not, I’m pretty sure mine would be approaching negative infinity if that were the case,” it chattered away, seemingly without end. “Then again, they say each person is born with a limited amount of these so called ‘fucks’ to give, but I’m not sure if that anecdote applies to monsters. Even if it did, I most certainly would not want to spend such a limited resource on someone like you. What I’m getting at is that your intentions are of minimal concern to me. I just need to collect what I am due and I’ll be on my way, so let’s have it.”
The Monk was understandably confused, and not entirely because of her currently unstable mental condition. She expected Boxxy to be angry with her, to strike out at her. Some part of her wanted it, even. Instead it buried her in a deluge of nonsense that drowned out whatever resolve or resolution she might have had. It was as if the idea of Jen hatching a plan or conspiracy that threatened its life was as inconsequential a topic as tomorrow’s weather.
“I already told you, I don’t have it,” Jen stated after a few moments. “I don’t have anything right now. My wings, my faith, my hopes - all were taken from me.”
For the angel, having her wings and halo stripped by the very deity she was supposed to worship was a soul-crushing experience. Axel had looked deep within her and He saw that she somehow completely missed the point of his teachings and perverted them to suit her own needs. He likely intended for her to bear that scar for the rest of her days as a sort of penance, as even a belief as hollow as hers would leave a void behind after being literally ripped out of her.
“I will never be whole again.”
“That simply will not do,” Keira said with a tone of mock concern. “I didn’t go through the trouble of allowing all this to happen only to end up with damaged goods. That’s alright though, I think this will buff out.”
“You see, I always collect on what I am owed. In this case it is a weapon, but that need not necessarily be a heavy object with sharp edges or some other tool meant to inflict bodily harm.”
The monster slowly began emerging from its Facade as it spoke, starting by turning Keira’s smooth sun-kissed skin into malformed gray flesh.
“There are a multitude of ways and means to injure someone, many of which cannot be fended off with something as basic as sturdy armor or good reflexes.”
It cast off the trappings of civilization with practiced ease as the athletic crimson-haired catgirl slowly but surely morphed into a muscular doppelganger with bark covering the length of its arms and legs.
“Words, looks, emotions, sex, money, influence - everything can be a weapon if used right.”
Those soft lips twisted into a freakish vertical mouth that ran the length of the creature’s otherwise faceless head, its voice gradually transitioning into the sleazy hiss of a deceitful monster.
“Though I personally find that the greatest weapons are those who can think for themselves.”
Now standing before Jen in its natural form, Boxxy slowly extended one of its hands with the palm facing upward, its four spindly fingers spreading out as if expecting to receive something.
“Join me,” it beckoned. “Cast aside the humanity that is holding you back, and I will see you become the most lethal weapon you could ever hope to be.”
Under normal circumstances, one would instantly assume that such an offer was highly suspect to say the least. If this proposal, such as it was, had been made at any other time, then the Monk would have shot it down ten out of ten times, even if she would have hesitated a little. But these weren’t ‘normal circumstances,’ nor was it ‘any other time.’ It was ‘right here’ and ‘right now,’ and the fallen angel that Jen was at this singular, specific point in time had not a single doubt in her mind.
She grasped that hand and clung to it like it was the only thing she had ever wanted.