Sunday morning found Arwyn in taekwondo class as per her routine. After warm-up and stretching, the class was split up by belt rank; each group was assigned an assistant instructor who led them through the appropriate pattern practice.
Taekwondo patterns, or forms, were sets of linked kicks, punches, and blocks in a pre-set order. The movements were balanced and symmetrical; if performed perfectly, one would end in the exact same spot in which the pattern was begun.
Arwyn loved performing patterns. There was a unique grace and dignity to the ancient movements, passed down through the martial art for centuries. She herself was not a graceful person, but when she flowed through the twenty-plus movements of a pattern, it felt like she was.
The head instructor wandered between groups of students and observed. Generally, he nodded in approval and moved on without comment, but he would occasionally intervene to change a stance, shift the angle of an arm, or give brief instructions to the assistant instructor.
Arwyn always felt nervous when being observed by the head instructor. He was a compact, mild-mannered man who did not really ‘look like he did taekwondo’ unless you noticed the intense focus in his eyes. She was not sure whether he had five or six stripes on his black belt (because after four, they became hard to count and she was too intimidated to stare for more than a second). There was no real reason for her to be nervous, as all the instructors were supportive and patient teachers; it was mostly her imagination that told her they could see a dozen things she was doing wrong that they were too polite to mention.
Legitimate cause or not, Arwyn’s nerves meant that when she was being observed by the head instructor, her kicks, punches, and blocks gained an extra measure of snap. Her mind went into overdrive, looking for and eliminating any minor errors in technique. Having already memorized the pattern she was practicing, she moved through its thirty-one movements without error or pause.
“Very good,” the head instructor said in approval. “How long have you been a red belt?”
“Uh…” Arwyn hesitated as if trying to figure the time in her head, but really she was stalling because she did not like the direction the conversation was taking. Her last belt exam had been before she started university, five years ago. Moving away from her hometown, she had kept up her fitness by joining her school’s taekwondo club, but as it catered to beginners trying the martial art for the first time, she had forgotten most of the knowledge she was supposed to know as a red belt. Only after graduating and moving back had she started relearning everything.
The head instructor searched his own memories of recent belt exams and did not find Arwyn. “It’s been a long time, hasn’t it?”
“Yes, sir.” Arwyn could foresee her doom.
The head instructor nodded decisively. “You’ll go for your black stripe in December,” he announced.
Doom. Arwyn had three months until she would be called up and examined on everything she was supposed to know. She was not feeling enthusiastic, but respect for her teachers was deeply engrained. There was only one possible response: “Yes, sir.”
The head instructor patted Arwyn’s shoulder reassuringly. “You’ll do well.” With a few words to the assistant instructor, he moved on to other groups.
Arwyn knew she was being melodramatic with the pronouncements of doom. In reality, no one ever failed the belt exams; if the instructors did not think you were ready, they simply did not let you take the exam. It was only the combination of her love of the sport, her nerves when being observed by a panel of masters, and her habit of getting good grades that made her want to score one hundred percent on taekwondo exams.
Even with the goal of getting a perfect score, three months was plenty of time to learn everything. Arwyn’s ability to learn and memorize was several standard deviations above average. Going to classes regularly and spending a few hours at home studying would be sufficient if she applied herself properly.
Better start now. She concentrated with ferocious attention as the assistant instructor began to demonstrate a different pattern she needed to know.
Magic squeaked an enthusiastic affirmative. He and Leandriel were about to walk into the lair of the main boss of The Rift. At level 120, Leandriel would have left it alone for another few months of training if not for his new companion. With Magic’s help, he thought he could defeat it now, but it was a risky endeavour. With the current difference in level, any stray hit was likely to earn him a quick trip to the rebirth point.
Walking forward, Leandriel felt rumbling in the ground. “No turning back now,” he told his pet. “It’s smelled us.” Bending his knees, he leapt into the air just in time to avoid a lashing tentacle.
If the other monsters in The Rift were failed experiments, the boss was an amalgamation of leftover parts. Blobs of flesh connected innumerable limbs of all kinds. Eyes and mouths were everywhere, with or without heads. Internal organs decorated its outsides: loops of bowel, bone, and sickly, beating hearts. The entire mass was easily bigger than a dozen dragons, glistening with bodily fluids, and torturously held to life by heavy-duty demonic and undead magic.
It wanted to add Leandriel to its parts. He narrowly avoided shots of acid, grasping limbs, and once, an eye laser. Hissing at the close call as the laser singed a dark line across one wing, he muttered, “Nobody told me it could do that.”
Having successfully survived the first burst of attacks, Leandriel began his counter.
“Purifying Light.” Brilliant white light pierced the monster with holy energy. The spell was far too weak to do any real damage, but it helped blind the multitude of eyes aiming deadly attacks his way while at the same time strengthening him due to his high holy affinity.
“Drain Spore, please,” he requested of his companion. “Don’t bother to aim; just lay as thick a layer as you can.”
Magic complied, trailing a dense cloud of spores as Leandriel ducked and dodged through the air. Leandriel was far too busy avoiding death to look down and see the effect of the spores on the monster.
(However, narrators can look wherever they want. *smacked for intruding on a Leandriel scene*) Many of Magic’s Drain Spores failed to attach to the boss, swept aside by the violent movements of its limbs or dissolved in acid as they landed. Some, however, were able to land safely; the monster was so large that a considerable number found safe areas to touch down.
Upon beginning to Drain, another chunk of the spore population died, undead and demonic energy being rather toxic to other creatures. Still, a hardy few persevered, collectively draining a few health points per second and using the life force to fuel their own growth. Meanwhile, Magic continued to release new Drain Spores every second, adding to the population sucking away the monster’s health.
The monster paid no attention to the diminutive fungi, focusing its energy on Leandriel and his stinging holy attacks. The spores took this time to mature into small mushrooms, which allowed their Drain ability to begin levelling up. One HP per second became two, then three, then four… times a hundred mushrooms, two hundred, three hundred and counting. With so much surface area, the monster was uniquely vulnerable to the carpeting of Drain Spores.
When its health started to become noticeably depleted, the monster finally tried to deal with its mushroom infestation. It used its limbs in clumsy attempts to scrape them off, but they were firmly anchored and refused to budge. Even if the monster hit them directly, anything but an instant kill was ineffective, as Drain quickly restored their health to full.
Leandriel took the monster’s distraction as an opportunity to swoop in and destroy several of its external hearts. Hundreds of discordant voices shrieked and howled in pain.
Right next to the monster, the wall of sound hit Leandriel like a physical blow. Stunned and disoriented, he faltered in flight, stalling in the air. By the time he recovered, he was in the grasp of a crab-like claw that pinned his arms to his sides and was trying to pinch him in half. His armour groaned in protest and began to buckle.
Magic came to the rescue without prompting, disappearing into Leandriel’s magically enlarged belt pouch and emerging with a flask of holy water. The mushroom quickly dropped the flask before it expanded to its normal size and it shattered on the monster’s claw with a sizzle.
The monster flinched back from the burning liquid, allowing Leandriel to wrench himself free and escape into the air. “Good job, buddy.”
Magic squeaked happily and went back to casting Drain Spore.
By this time, the monster was losing over a thousand health per second to the Drain Spore mushrooms. Its movements were noticeably weaker as it tried to rid itself of parasites. Displaced mushrooms determinedly hopped back into place and re-anchored themselves, and the monster caused itself more damage than it saved using its deadly limbs on its own body.
Leandriel flew in evasive circles around the boss. When it focused its attention on the mushrooms, he sent lances of holy light spearing through the monster, leaving smoking holes behind. When his attacks drew its attention, he focused on defending himself, letting the mushrooms sap away its health.
Before too long, the boss began to look distinctly dried-out and feeble. Leandriel judged that its health was as low as it could fall with minor attacks. For a boss of the Epic calibre, such as this one, only a finishing blow that would destroy at least five percent of its health would have any effect beyond this point.
Leandriel flew higher and higher until even the huge bulk of the monster looked like a tiny speck below.
“Into the pouch, buddy,” he bade Magic. The mushroom squeaked encouragement to his owner and disappeared into the magical storage pouch.
Leandriel cast his ability as he began his dive.
A spark of bright white appeared at the tip of his sword, brightening to sun-like brilliance as Leandriel steadily gained speed.
Hurtling through the air at a devastating pace, he sent a quick PM to his programmer:
<Leandriel: I really hope the physics of this works out as you claimed it would.>
There was no time to wait for a reply; his sword pierced into the boss as he continued diving with no attempt to slow down or change direction.
Without intervention of magic, such a maneuver would certainly be fatal, his momentum carrying him head-first through the monster and into the ground. Even relying on the explosion of his attack to blow him backwards would likely result in whiplash that would snap his neck. Thankfully, the attack worked as programmed: the holy energy of the explosion recognized Leandriel as one of its own and gently cancelled his momentum before buoying him back from the boss’s death throes.
As Leandriel ascertained his survival and lack of crippling injury, he received a reply:
<KevinO: Worked perfectly, just like I said.>
<Leandriel: You’re the man.>
From the air, Leandriel observed the damage he had inflicted. Approximately one fifth of the boss’s flesh had disappeared in a crater-like hole. Another three-fifths of flesh surrounding the impact site was charred and blackened. Still, the lack of system messages told him that the boss still clung to life.
Leandriel did not feel up to a repeat of the death-defying version of Holy Impact; it consumed a lot of stamina and mana and also required a lot of mental energy to convince his body to continue forward when all of his instincts shrieked for him to slow down. He decided to finish the job the old-fashioned way. Landing, he cast a blessing on his sword and began to hack his way through the monster.
Leandriel had to chop the boss in half before it finally succumbed.
<Leandriel has defeated Drykkan’s Parts Monster!>
<Leandriel has gained 1,422,490 experience.>
<Leandriel has achieved level 105!>
<Leandriel has earned the title Cleanser!>
<Leandriel’s holy affinity has risen to 125% (+50%)!>
<Leandriel’s fame has risen to 27,300 (+15,000)!>
<Magic has gained 1,422,490 experience.>
<Magic has achieved level 66!>
<Magic’s Spore has reached level 13!>
<Magic’s Spore has reached level 14!>
<Magic’s Drain has reached level 9!>
<Magic’s Drain has reached level 10!>
<Magic’s Drain has reached level 11!>
<Magic’s Drain has reached level 12!>
Sensing that the battle was over, Magic hopped out of Leandriel’s belt pouch and squeaked victoriously. Suddenly, the mushroom began to glow.
Frowning in confusion, Leandriel picked up his pet for examination. Under his hands, Magic began to change shape. With a chiming sound, his stem thinned and elongated, while his cap spread out like an opening umbrella. (*Pokemon* *Not smacked because the mention was necessary*)
Transformation completed, Magic’s glow dimmed and disappeared, revealing his new appearance. His overall size remained roughly the same, but his aesthetic was drastically different. Rather than a fat, squat, cartoonish mushroom, he was now tall and elegant. His cap had faded from a vivid blue to milky white to match his stem, though one could see the faintest tinge of blue if one looked for it. The gills on the underside of his cap looked delicate and feathery.
<Magic has evolved!>
<Magic, level 66 death angel mushroom[iii]>
“Mm?” Magic made a questioning noise quite different from his former squeak; it was much lower in pitch and sounded like a human voice without vowel or consonant sounds.
Leandriel had a sinking feeling in his stomach. He did not think Fey would be pleased with Magic’s change in appearance. Intentional or not, all of her pets had a common ‘cute and cuddly’ appearance that Magic no longer shared.
He messaged Kevin:
<Leandriel: What happened to my mushroom?>
<KevinO: Like it? We all thought that this guy suits you better. Plus the whole ‘death angel’ thing.>
If Magic were his pet to keep, Leandriel would not be displeased at the transformation, but…
<Leandriel: Could you change him back? I don’t think his owner would like it.>
<KevinO:…You can’t give it back to the elf girl, it outlevelled her a long time ago. I mean, you could, but you’d have to reset its stats as if it died.>
The sinking feeling grew more pronounced. Leandriel had not even considered the fact that players could not gain a pet of higher level than them. This was a prudent safeguard against power-levelling. He had essentially stolen Fey’s pet when he agreed to take care of it.
<KevinO: Sorry man, I thought you knew the rule or I would have warned you.>
<Leandriel: I did, but I somehow did not think of it in this instance. Not your fault.>
“Mmm?” Magic’s questioning sound now held a note of worry that Leandriel was not pleased with his transformation.
Leandriel sighed and patted the mushroom. “It’ll be fine, little buddy. I’m sure Fey will not be mad at me forever.” His words aimed to convince himself more than the mushroom.
“Mmmmm.” Magic smiled and made a reassuring sound, trying to convey that his old owner would not be angry with Leandriel. Unfortunately for Leandriel’s nerves, he lacked Fey’s uncanny ability to understand her pets and thought Magic was merely trying to comfort him.
Putting his worries aside – he would deal with things when Fey logged on – Leandriel began the walk out of the boss’s lair. He was accompanied by a stream of Drain Spore mushrooms who were presumably looking for new food. Demonic and undead forces had dramatically altered their development: while their general shapes were similar to blue mushrooms, some were the sickly grey of dead flesh and others vivid shades of red and yellow.
Leandriel wondered what species they were.
<Leandriel: Do I need to do anything about these mushrooms?>
<KevinO: Nah, they’ll fit themselves into the ecosystem.>
<Leandriel: If you say so.>
Magic paid no attention to his strange offspring, already wanting to know what the next adventure would be.
[i] Look up “tae geuk 6” if you would like to see the pattern in this scene.
[ii] Since the writing of this chapter, the World Taekwondo headquarters has realized the unfortunate acronym created by “World Taekwondo Federation” and the organization is now just called “World Taekwondo”
[iii] This refers to three species of mushrooms collectively known as ‘death angel’ or ‘destroying angel’, Amanita bisporigera, Amanita virosa, and Amanita verna. They produce a toxin known as α-amanitin, which blocks RNA polymerase and the synthesis of new proteins in the body; ingesting this toxin leads to a slow and painful death.