Ram, Ross, and Rupert crouch down in a semi-circle, the metal armor on their thighs almost pressed against their breastplates. They stare at the two wooden cubes in Ram’s shaking hand. Doc, Kuruk, Dan and Leonard sit across from them, rounding out the circle of men surrounding the bare earth below the great tree guarding Chronos’s cave entrance.
“Come on Skulls, let’s go, Skulls! Skulls! Skulls!” Dan says, holding his arm out in front of him in a fist, punching it forward in time with ‘Skulls.’
“Bones, Bones, Bones! Let’s go, baby!’ Doc says.
Ram tosses the two cubes into the inner circle. They bounce around several times before settling, two skulls showing on top.
“Yessssss!” Dan says as Doc jumps to his feet and starts kicking at the dirt. “You owe me two bottles of whiskey, Doc.” Doc waves his hand at Dan walking away from the group. Leonard holds out his fist to Dan and Dan bumps it with his.
“Can always count on Ram for the double skulls. Ah, look who’s back, have a nice nap?” Ross says.
The men turn and look at me.
“Very funny. What happened? Did you guys make it? Did you incarnate Chronos?” I say.
“We were fine. We killed the rest of those warriors and then just climbed out of the root. Reginald didn’t try to attack us and we weren’t sure what would happen if we killed him without you and Bonesy there. Kuruk here tanked the rest of the melee warriors while Leonard sliced them up. Doc wasn’t much use with their fire resistance, might be why he’s taking his skull and bones loss so hard.” Dan says with a wink. I can hear Doc’s grumbling as he walks farther down the cave mouth.
“Trying to take my job, Kuruk?” I say. He shrugs.
“My bear form is very sturdy but I can only use that boon once a day. It’s not that practical to use for consistent tanking.” Kuruk says.
Dan nods. “They couldn’t do enough damage to Kuruk to overcome my healing boons before we picked them apart. If you had gotten a bit luckier on your Staff Defense you might have made it through the fight. Sorry about that, I knew you were probably too low level after seeing the guard’s levels but I was hoping it would work out. If there hadn’t been fifteen of them it would have been ok.” Dan says.
“I told you we should have just stabbed the squishy floor. I bet we would have only had to fight five at a time” I say. Leonard nods his head.
I wave at Leonard, “See, Leonard agrees. What do you think Ram?”
“I think Ross owes me his best dagger, hand it over.” Ross pulls a dagger off of his belt and hands it over to Ram. “I won’t comment on the corrupted cave, that’s your problem.”
“Not corrupted anymore, right?” I say. Ram just raises his eyebrows.
I look into the tunnel again, is that a faint blue light?
“Y'all, I think the cave re-spawned,” Doc says, waving us down.
I jog down the cave entry, running my hand along the root for guidance until the blue glow becomes strong enough for me to see. Dan, Kuruk and Leonard are right behind me. I pull up to the cliff edge and look down into the first chamber. Sure enough, the glowing blue moss is back and as strong as ever.
“Wait,” I say. “How much experience did you all get from finishing up those warriors?”
“I’m not sure, maybe 5% of my level,” Dan says.
I check my notifications.
You Have Reached Level 10!
+5 Attribute points
Congratulations! You have leveled up skill: Staff Defense (Level 2)
As you practice blocking your opponent’s attacks with your staff, this skill will go up in level and effectiveness. This skill has the following effects:
Congratulations! You have discovered a new skill: Two Handed Spin (Level 1)
A defensive spin of your staff has an increased chance of deflecting multiple incoming attacks at once.
“How much do you want to have a strong tank, Dan? Because I got a whole level off of killing four of those things before I died. If we can fight only five of them at once, and do it repeatedly...”
“Then we might be able to catch you up in levels in a day!” Dan says.
“It depends on how long it took for the glowing soul stuff to come back after you all left the cave. Maybe all those glass shards turn back to soul-ooze fast. We can figure that out just by clearing the place out again and leaving. I looked over my skills, I should have no problem defending against four of those warriors if you guys kill them quickly before Slur to Spur wears off. I won’t be able to do enough damage to keep them interested in me at a low level, at least to start, but it shouldn’t matter if you kill them fast enough.”
Dan just stares at me.
“You just sounded like you know what you’re doing doing in here.”
“Oh, shut it, Dan. I told you, I’m not stupid, I just haven’t played an RPG in a long time. Give me a minute, I need to allocate my attributes.”
I still have five attribute points to allocate from when I got to level 9 after I was rewarded for killing my first player and another five points from gaining level 10. I decide to sink all ten points into Dexterity. The increased block and deflection chance has proven to be valuable, especially when dealing with multiple enemies. If we can fight a reasonable number of enemies at once, I should be able to stay alive easily without taking much damage, provided my luck holds. I did the math on the last battle. I was swung at by the five Soul Essence Warriors on the front lines at least fifteen times, and only got hit twice, before four of the warriors hit me at once. That is roughly a sixty-six percent dodge and block avoidance rate, and that’s when fighting enemies twice my level. I’m not sure if the Dexterity of what I’m fighting, their level or both affects my chances to avoid attacks, but nearly doubling my own Dexterity while staying the same level should tell me. If I avoid attacks at a higher rate the next time we fight the Soul Essence Warriors than it is likely just our relative amounts of Dexterity account for my avoidance rate. I’m working with incredibly small sample sizes of course, but it’s all I have to go on.
Samantha (Level 10) Attributes
Available points: 0
I hear a voice behind us and close my attribute window.
“Hello down there? Samantha? I just consented to having my eternal soul corrupted, I hope this is worth it.”
Doc and Dan back up to the edge of the cliff at the end of the tunnel, above the first chamber. Kuruk steps slightly forward into the tunnel. I make calming gestures with my hands. Out of the darker shadows of the tunnel, I see an average height man walk towards us. The skin exposed on his hands and face fails to hide the veins beneath it, the midnight blue robe covers the rest of his form. The man stops two paces away, leaning on a knotted staff covered in dry flakey bark, his long white hair hangs past his shoulders and covers the top of the stave. The lively blue eyes and smooth skin prove the lie to his wizened mannerisms. I focus on the man and a name appears above him.
“Really went literal with the whole wizard thing, David?” I say.
“Might as well, you didn’t take it easy there Mrs. Amazon Warrior Princess. Hi everyone, I’m David. Thanks for putting up with Samantha, I know she can be trying.”
I cuff David in the back of the head.
“Watch it David, I can snap you in half.”
He smiles and rubs the back of his head.
“Hey David, I’m Dan, your friend’s tutorial master and Master Cleric extraordinaire. Do I detect an Ice wizard?”
“Yep, Level 11. I chose Glacies, God of Ice, and designed some pretty awesome boons if I do say so myself.”
Dan shakes David’s hands and tilts his head.
“You didn’t go with the standard Ice boons? Vitalia’s were quite good.”
“No, Glacies’s were boring. I think I did better than the standard set. I’m sure Samantha will find something that’s wrong with them, she’s perpetually disappointed with me in the shooters we play.”
David extends his hand to Kuruk, Kuruk clasps it and says, “I’m Kuruk. I saved your friend’s bacon yesterday and thought it would be fun to see what other trouble she could get in. She’s not bad on the eyes either.” Kuruk winks at me and I can feel my cheeks heat up.
David looks at Kuruk a second before saying, “She might as well be my sister, not just my friend.”
I guess it’s some sort of man code because it doesn’t make any sense to me. David has called me sis for a long time, but why he feels the need to tell Kuruk I don’t know. I feel like I just jumped into a meter tall snowbank, looking down I notice a thin layer of frost that is already melting into water and running down into my boots.
David turns to Doc, extending his hand.
“Doc Weatherby. I’m the barbecue, he’s the carver.” Doc gestures with his left thumb where Leonard briefly appears, waves a dagger, and then camouflages again.
“Glacies couldn’t stop talking about how my faith got him one step closer to extinguishing Ignis’s flaccid god flame. It was distracting. I’m not an Ignis bigot but I’d watch out for Glacies purists.” David says.
“Glad to hear you’ve got an open mind. We going to stand around gummin’ all day gents or we going to get to business?” Doc says.
“Get to business, follow me,” I say.
I back up to the cliff edge, the blue moss, bright as any neon street sign, lighting the carpet of roots above me. My fingers easily discover handholds as I lower my body down the cliff face, letting my legs hang, reveling in this unnatural strength. As soon as everyone else reaches the bottom, Dan says, “Ok, so we stab the floor?”
“Hold on Dan, we should go down one more level, then throw a dagger into the ceiling. Did you notice that the floors above us disappeared last time right? If we stab the floor we’ll take damage when we fall through it.” I say.
“...not really. We could have jumped on a root and climbed down but your idea sounds safer. Let’s head down.” Dan says.
We all climb down the root with the fake side and exit on the second floor.
“Ok, let me give this bow another try.” I pull out the basic bow I received from Kuruk and notch an arrow. I pull back the string and aim at the ceiling. This time, I try to release the bow cord quickly so my hand doesn’t get in the way and foul the shot. The arrow flies and hits the ceiling, roughly three meters from where I was aiming. It’s an awful shot, but the margin of error is quite large when you are trying to hit something like a ceiling.
“That was a terrible shot,” David says.
“Shut up, David. It worked didn’t it?”
Pulsing soul goo drips down from the site of the arrow shot before I hear a tearing sound and the small leak turns into a meter circumference goop-hose, sinking our legs in a third of a meter pool. Five Soul Essence Warriors rise out of the Soul Essence, gathering all the liquid from the chamber into themselves and darkening into a hard cobalt glass shell. Four warriors run towards our position in the middle of the chamber, one standing back with a bow.
“Decaide lied to you. Reginald lied to you. Your sacrifices were one hundred percent in vain,” I say. Every warrior turns towards me and I see a hint of red pulse from inside the hardened glass faceplate of each warrior. I think my Slur to Spur may have been unusually effective this time, all four warriors sprint towards me, their weapons at the ready.
I ignore the bow-wielding warrior, trusting Dan to repair any wounds I receive. I feel a pain in my hip and look down to see an arrow penetrating my skin, stuck in my hip bone. Refusing to give the bow warrior any attention, expecting Leonard to stab it to pieces, I brace myself, getting ready to perform Flurry of Blows to keep the four Soul Essences Warriors with melee weapons stunned for as long as I can while Doc, David, and Kuruk whittle them down.
The skin on the back of my left leg feels like a campfire is only a meter behind it, and my right leg stiffens with a layer frost. The crackle of a hungry fire and the howl of a winter’s wind pierce my ears, intensifying as the first warriors reach me. I execute Flurry of Blows, hitting one warrior in the head and another in the sternum.
I see Kuruk step ahead of me, but several meters to the left, striding towards the leftmost warrior, a half meter long axe in each hand. He seems larger than before, and the long, thick brown hairs poking out of the top of his leather jerkin and the tops of his hands were not present before the fight. He opens his mouth wide, and I imagine he must be roaring like his patron god Animus, but I can still only hear fire and wind. He gets within arms reach of one warrior, and swings methodically, one axe coming down while the other is wound up behind him, like some ancient tunneling machine would swing its axes to bore through a mountain of Soul Essence.
A white-hot spear of rock erupts from the ground below the same Soul Essence Warrior Kuruk fights. The hardened material of the warrior’s pelvis melts, and Kuruk next axe stroke shatters what remains of the warrior.
My mouth suddenly feels dry as hundreds of clear shards of ice appear in the air above the warriors. The fragments of ice start rotating individually, like blades in a blender, before the ice spreads into a cylinder roughly three meters in diameter, and then drops into the midst of the warriors. I want to stuff both hands into my ears, the scraping and breaking of ice on hardened soul essence like hundreds of tiny Uber cars crashing into each other. I notice that when one of the spinning ice blades hits a warrior, it leaves a small gouge, and then fills in the gouge with its own shards like iron flakes would gather to a magnet.
It’s easier for me to hit each warrior now, their movements slow noticeably with all the ice covering and compromising their bodies. One of the warriors avoids a blow and cuts my left triceps before my staff knocks his sword away. Even with the warriors covered in ice, I likely don’t have much more time before Flurry of Blows has too low a chance to keep them stunned.
Leonard appears behind the rightmost warrior, I see him pull one dagger back above his head, his thumb on the end of the pommel and the blade pointed forwards. The dagger lengthens and six barbs grow from its edges. A dripping a tar black substance falls to the cavern floor. I can hear a whispering voice speaking in a language I don’t understand. Leonard plunges the dagger into the warriors back and rips it out in one motion, shards of soul essence flying into the air as the barbs widen the wound. I can barely see his arm as he stabs twice more, the warrior collapsing and breaking into pieces in front of him.
I stop my Flurry of Blows now that only two warriors remain. I grab my staff with two hands, and spin to my left, bring the staff around in a wide arc and slamming it into the rightmost warrior's side. I can feel the staff flex in the air before it emits a loud crack. I wonder if my original Oak staff would have survived the blow. Regardless, Natura’s gift, my Novice’s Blessed Bloodwood Staff, drops the warrior’s hitpoints by ten percent, roughly double what my original oak staff would have done.
A molten stalagmite impales the warrior I hit, compliments of Doc, before Leonard appears behind it, stabbing the warrior rapidly in its lower back until it too shatters. The last warrior manages to cut into my side, but a warm glow surrounds me before I can even notice a hitpoint drop. Kuruk and Leonard hack at the last warrior until it too falls to the ground. I focus on the glass-like remains, an icon appears, and text reading:
Corrupted Soul Shards - Only suitable for imbuing Decrepit and his pantheon’s powers into an item.
“Anyone want these Corrupted Soul Shards? It says they can only be used by Decrepit and his pantheon, and I don’t plan on going that route, especially not if we incarnate Chronos. And where was the mention of imbuing items in the tutorial Dan?”
“You remember cutting me off when I tried to explain parts of the game, right? It’s possible to imbue an item with boons, if you yourself have the boon, the amount of soul expended in the process dictates what type of boon can be imbued and how often it can be used,” Dan says.
“That seems a little overpowered. So Kuruk can imbue an item and turn into a bear a whole bunch of times on the same day?”
“The shards are normally quite rare, and both the item and the person doing the imbuing have to be of a high level to imbue any type of significant boon -- this Chronos quest is proving to be quite the windfall.”
“Leonard would like them, please. He chose Sicarus as his god. The God of Assassins shouldn’t mind those shards one bit,” Doc says.
“Ok, feel free to take all the shards, Leonard. We’re looking good guys. One floor, five enemies and I got half a level. We have five days until Null Division comes back if we can get me and David up in levels, before fragging the players he brought with him, we might just have a shot. I hope you guys don’t have any plans because we are going to be doing this for awhile.”